Alaska National Guard plays role in fighting state’s wildfires in 2023 season

Inside the Gates
Alaska National Guard plays role in fighting state’s wildfires in 2023 season
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 1:42 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 4:18 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s perhaps a lesser-known resource the state has available to assist in fighting Alaska’s wildfires, but one that was not off the table for 13 members of the Alaska National Guard who were deployed to the Interior in the 2023 wildfire season.

A damp start to the summer months across the state gave a chance to send Alaska-based wildland crews to fire-ravaged areas outside of the state, but an unseasonably dry August led to a number of lightning-caused fires erupting in the Fairbanks North Star and Denali boroughs.

Five firefighters from the 176th Civil Engineer Squadron Alaska Air National Guard and 8 soldiers of the 207th Aviation Troop Command were among those deployed after the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and adjutant general for the Alaska National Guard, Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, authorized the request from the Alaska Division of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The 207th flew to the Alaska Army National Guard Readiness Center in Fairbanks where UH-60 Black Hawk operations were conducted out of Fort Wainwright’s Ladd Army Airfield, completing 94 bucket drops totaling 59,220 gallons of water on Interior wildfires.

Tech. Sgt. Quintan Hecimovich was one of the five with the 176th Civil Engineer Squadron that responded in Nenana where the Anderson Complex fires were burning.

“Everybody was stripped, especially with Canada popping off and the other lightning fires going on down south,” Hecimovich said. “They requested our presence on the road system specifically, more because we can bring this giant tender with 2000 gallons of water and help them out.”

The tender Hecimovich refers to is a 36-year-old six-wheel drive pump and roll P18 fire truck that formally belonged to Kulis Air National Guard Base before the base shut down in 2011.

According to Hecimovich, the last time the 176th was deployed to a wildfire was in 2016, after a late-November fire ignited after seasonal employees were laid off for the year.

The Alaska National Guard’s 176th wing firefighting capabilities are a resource Master Sgt. Tyler Larimer — the only full-time employee of the fire department — is trying to expand on to be able to assist wildland crews more frequently.

“[We’ve been] talking with our wildland reps and working with the state and coming up with a plan of how to set ourselves up best to respond, and then seeing what resources that they need,” Larimer said. “Maintaining those relationships with all the local agencies is a huge part of that, because if they don’t know who we are and what we can do then we’re not going to get the call to go out the door.”

Larimer said he’s confident that his squadron’s response to this year’s wildfire season has placed them in a position to become a valuable asset to local agencies.

Hecimovich said that while the guard has the ability to play numerous roles in response efforts, ultimately their job is to be there for Alaska as a whole.

“Our main mission is to prepare both expeditionary firefighters that deploy but also respond to any emergency that the state has in any domestic incident,” Hecimovich said. “Whenever there aren’t resources available, we show up.”