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‘I can still help in some way’: virtual work helps in Lower 48 wildfire response

Alaska BLM Communications Specialist, Beth Ipsen explains how she's helping with California wild fires from Phoenix.
Alaska BLM Communications Specialist, Beth Ipsen explains how she's helping with California wild fires from Phoenix.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 7:38 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It would be pretty crazy to try and fight a wildfire with a computer, but according to Bureau of Land Management Communications Specialist, Beth Ipsen, virtual work is being used to help with historic wildfires in the Lower 48.

Ipsen has been with the BLM helping with wildfires in Alaska and the Lower 48 since 2016. She’s working on the August Complex, which is the result of several wildfires combining into one. On Tuesday, she said it covers just under 847,000 acres and was about 38% contained. This is her fourth Lower 48 assignment.

She said there are about 400 total Alaskans deployed to help with all of the Lower 48 fires including about 100 working on just one-third of the August Complex.

While in the Lower 48, she’s a public information officer informing the public about the fires through social media, press releases and other mediums.

The Alaskan employee is doing all of this for the North Zone of the August Complex in northern California all the way from Phoenix, Arizona. Like many working from home, she’s encountered some problems.

“There’s definitely some communication issues,” she said. "When you’ve got new technology, there’s a lot of information coming into that same channel and sometimes it builds up on each other.”

Still, technology is doing integral for many tasks associated with her job. She said there’s three working on the North Zone this way.

Other Alaska help, like incident management, have people working virtually as well. There are also some with a hybrid information position who do things like deliver maps and other supplies to the most rural areas of the fire where it’s harder received a text or email.

She imagines virtual help for wild fires could expand, but Ipsen said in-person work in this field can’t be replaced.

However, if virtual wasn’t an option, there’s a good chance that she wouldn’t be helping at all.

Ipsen is only in Phoenix because she’s taking care of her mother, who she said was recovering from some health complications.

“It was hard reading the news and seeing all of the fires and the high activity and hearing the calls go out. ‘Hey, if you’re available, please, we need help,' so it was hard watching that and feeling like what can I do,” she said.

Now, she said she’s still waking up very early, rarely leaving her computer but “at least being able to help in some way.”

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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