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Alaskans help with historic wildfires in Lower 48

A group of firefighters in the August Complex in California. The combination of several wildfires created the biggest wildfire in California history according to Alaska Incident Management.
A group of firefighters in the August Complex in California. The combination of several wildfires created the biggest wildfire in California history according to Alaska Incident Management.(Alaska Incident Management)
Published: Sep. 21, 2020 at 9:25 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Fires continue to singe much of Oregon and California as a brutal fire season goes on in the middle of a pandemic. Still, without hesitation, Alaskan firefighters and volunteers are in the Lower 48 helping put out fires.

In California, it’s a historic season. Alaska Incident Management Public Information Officer, Sam Harrel, said on Monday morning that the August Complex was 846,732 acres large -- the biggest fire on record in California history. It was 34% contained the same day.

“That’s roughly the size of Rhode Island,” he said. "Not really so big when you consider Alaska standards, but this is a really big fire we got down here.”

The Complex is divided into three zones. Harrel said he and about 100 other firefighters and managers from Alaska are in the North Zone, where they’re primarily helping fight fires on federal land in national parks. He said the number of people down there is about double the amount that would normally be sent.

Each person down there needs to be prepared for a two to three-week stay, Harrel said. Leave time to come home is complicated for them because of Alaska’s strict travel restrictions.

However, he said it’s no problem while recalling the Isom Creek Fire earlier in the summer and all the outside support Alaska received then. He said at the time, he knew they would be paying back that help.

“Alaska was very grateful for the help and very grateful that they were tolerant of the testing and the requirements,” he said. "My pitch to them at the time was, ‘Don’t worry, Alaskans will be ready and available to come and help you and we too will have to endure the testing, just as you came to help us in Alaska,' and that’s really the case.”

COVID-19 complications go beyond travel for them Harrel said. Firefighters are mostly positioned at one spike camp and aren’t intermingling. Cell phone service is better down there when compared to Alaska, but not in all the places where the fires are. So any supplies or maps are dropped off by couriers who stay in their car Harrel said.

Northward in Salem, Oregon, about 30 Alaskans like Cari Dighton are helping those displaced by that state’s wildfires.

Dighton said she’s normally the Regional Communications Officer for Alaska in the Red Cross, but down there she’s working in the joint information center.

She said every night 2,000 people need a place to stay after being driven from their homes. Over 70,000 meals have been distributed to those in need.

Dighton said, for the most part, the Red Cross is doing what it always does during and after natural disasters, but there too, COVID-19 is presenting new challenges.

She said it means less space is available for large shelter locations with cots because of social distancing, and fewer meals are being eaten in cafeterias.

Instead, she said they’ve been working with universities, hotels and any other partners that have separated rooms available for people to stay in. Rather than eating together, people bag and box food to be given and taken to eat in private.

Dighton said Oregon as a whole doesn’t have the same kind of wildfire experience as places like California and even Alaska because they don’t happen as often.

“Our volunteers have done that before, so folks that have unfortunately have been affected by wildfires before in Alaska they bring that lived experience here,” Dighton said.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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