As commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, it’s a privilege to work with the hundreds of men and women who put their skills to work — and their lives at risk — to protect fellow Alaskans from the ravages of wildfire.
As the alarming red specter of wildfire season gives way to the comforting yellow glow of fall, I want to thank everyone who worked so tirelessly to make this summer wildfire season a success, both here in Alaska and in the Lower 48.
This fall marks the end of a well-below-average fire season in Alaska. As of Oct. 6, there were 343 wildfires that burned about 181,253 acres, the lowest since 2008, and far below the more typical season of 500 fires burning 650,000 acres.
More than 1,000 personnel deployed to fight fires in Alaska this summer, including teams with the Division of Forestry, Alaska Fire Service and U.S. Forest Service, as well as Lower 48 resources. Early on, we welcomed about 250 firefighting personnel from outside, including nine crews, 30 smokejumpers and others, helping to contain the Isom Creek fire along the Dalton Highway.
Just as Lower 48 crews came north to help us during our terrible fire season in 2019, more than 400 Alaska firefighting personnel, including 14 crews and support personnel, have gone south this summer to help fight unusually high levels of fire elsewhere in the country. Some have spent more than two months on duty in any of 11 Western states. Some remain deployed yet today.
Regardless of the size, number or location of fires, each acre burns hot and poses risks to human life and safety. While I’m grateful Alaska’s fire season saw no significant direct injury from fire, we were all shocked at the crash of a Division of Forestry aircraft near Aniak that saw four DOF personnel sustain serious injuries, yet survive thanks in part to quick response from community youth. I want to thank those quick-acting teenagers and the other first responders for the life-saving aid they provided when it was needed most.
Firefighters this summer also faced the more subtle, but potentially even more dangerous hazard of COVID-19 during training and travel, in camp and in the field. Exercising innovation, creativity and discipline, fire managers developed safety protocols and best practices — wearing masks, practicing social distancing, sanitizing helicopters and engines and testing incoming resources – that helped ensure all those who turned out for duty stayed healthy and returned home uninfected.
In recognition of the service of firefighters across the nation, President Donald Trump has declared Oct. 4-10, 2020, as Fire Prevention Week and directed flags to fly at half-staff at federal offices in honor of those injured or killed by fire this year. On behalf of all Alaskans, I join with the president in conveying my deepest appreciation to all those who fight wildland fires, both here and outside.
While Alaskans are fortunate to live in and near beautiful wild places, that proximity places our homes, our neighbors and our families at risk of natural hazards like wildland fire. Fortunately, the same pioneer spirit that empowers us to live in Alaska extends to meeting the challenges of fire. We must all work hard to remain aware of the hazards of fire, to integrate fire-wise principles and attitudes into our lives, and to appreciate the work of the firefighters who respond when things go wrong.
• Corri A. Feige is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.