New law makes it easier to hire and train rural firefighters

House Bill 209 will allow emergency firefighting personnel to now perform non emergency work.
Published: Jun. 28, 2022 at 10:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry has a new focus on combating wildfires by using emergency firefighters to conduct preventative efforts to reduce large, complex wildfires during the summer months.

House Bill 209 will allow emergency firefighting personnel to now perform non emergency work. This change will help the Division of Forestry retain the firefighters they train and deploy during the summer fire season so the state can put local fire crews to work more consistently.

Mike Cronk, a representative for District 6 in the Alaska House of Representatives is a former emergency fire fighter himself and spearheaded the bill.

“The Lower 48 fire season are starting to overlap ours now,” Cronk said. “Ours would traditionally start sooner but theirs are starting sooner so you know what, there’s going to be a day where we are not going to be able to call on our outside crews to come up and help us.”

Department of Natural Resources Fire and Aviation Chief Norm McDonald stated that recently, retention has been a huge challenge. In the late 1990s, rural crew numbers were up to around 50 or 60. Now, Cronk and McDonald say were down to just a handful. Because of this, the need for village crews is rising.

“With the changing fire seasons and changing fire climate it is really important we have those same crews available to do fuels work as well,” McDonald said. “It’s a really important part of our mission. It’s that pre work before the fire starts to protect our communities, our villages, our infrastructure.”

According to McDonald rural based crews can also enhance our fire fighting capabilities.

“Traditionally that’s been the backbone of our firefighting workforce. Those are the crews that, they live in Alaska, they know our fuel types. They understand the Alaska fire behavior. They live in a lot of the places where we have these fires and protecting their values, their villages,” McDonald said.

Without that capability to grow crews within the state wildland firefighters would typically be imported from the Lower 48.

“That is a time lag, there’s three to five days. This year it’s really difficult to find flights for Lower 48 crews. So having those resources right in state available to go deploy when we need them is a big part of this as well,” McDonald said.

Crews imported from the Lower 48 can cost the state up to $14,000, where as an Alaskan crew would cost half, keeping more money in Alaska according to Cronk.

“We’re trying to help rural Alaska as best we can. We know there’s high unemployment. There’s not a lot of opportunities so by doing this we think we are providing an avenue for that,” said Cronk.

The bill, passed unanimously in the House during the most recent legislative session.

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