State Budget Cuts Squeeze Wildland Firefighters

Firefighting efforts are winding down on two wildfires in Southwest Alaska. The 14,800-acre Whitefish Lake Fire was contained as of Monday. At just over 25,000 acres, the Bogus Creek Fire was the largest yet this year, and demobilized Tuesday.

The state’s firefighting assets that responded to these fires were based out of McGrath, the station that covers the nearly 90 million acres of Southwest Alaska. Next month McGrath will lose the majority of its firefighting staff due to state budget cuts.

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An old map of the DNR’s Southwest Alaska fire area (credit: DNR/Division of Forestry)

In early July, the McGrath station will lose 16 of its 22 positions.

This six left on site will be a fire manager, two radio dispatchers, and three maintenance. That’ll be a skeleton crew at what has long been the state’s forward operating base for fighting wildland fires in Southwest Alaska. But Division of Forestry spokesperson Tim Mowry says they’ll be able to ramp up when necessary:

“Say it’s hot and dry out near McGrath, and there’s high fire danger. We can request a load or two loads of smokejumpers to go out and be stationed in McGrath so that if and when something does happen, they’re there and can respond,”

Mowry says the same would be done for aircraft, which would come from Palmer, Kenai, or Fairbanks.  He says DNR and Forestry do this kind of shuffling around all the time, and the state hopes it will save money in this era of smaller budgets and shrinking services.

Others are skeptical:

“I think that it’s very shortsighted, to say the least.”

That’s McGrath Mayor Dustin Parker, who isn’t sure the firefighting readiness will be what Southwest Alaskan deserves.

“To manage an area that’s 88 million acres large, from the other side of the Alaskan range makes no sense at all … When a wildfire occurs, and you have to mobilize a force from an hour and a half away in either direction, there’s a real opportunity for loss of life, loss of property, loss of infrastructure.”

But there’s another side of this story for Mayor Parker and the rest of McGrath’s 350 year-round residents.

“It’s unfortunate from an economic standpoint for the little community and the surrounding villages in the upper Kuskokwim region. Because a lot of people rely on the ability to work for the DNR.”

In what once was a thriving interior hub town, McGrath’s residents have watched one agency after another pack up and leave: the Air Force, FAA, the National Weather Service, and most recently Fish and Wildlife Service pulled their Innoko Wildlife Refuge offices. With the coming loss of the 16 state employees, and the money and contracts that came with them, some residents wonder how their town will survive.

Craig Losby, a long time resident, has been outspoken since the DNR cuts were announced:

“You know they were a huge user of the infrastructure here. The electrical grid, the sewer, the water system, everything was geared to all these other agencies that were here. And then they leave, and the burden of sustaining the whole thing then falls on the people remaining. They take people away from here.”

Losby feels the state has turned mostly a blind eye and deaf ear to their complaints.

“We spent a lot of time and money and energy contacting our state legislators, the governor, and everybody else, and nobody has done anything for us.”

Nor does he feel the state was receptive to public input at a recent town hall meeting attended by DNR representatives.

“They had a cut-and-dry program. They didn’t come to talk to us about it or to hear anything from people on the ground. They came out here just to tell us. They just came out to close it.”

July 1st will come and go, and six of 22 southwest Alaska firefighting positions will be left in McGrath. The state says the cuts will save money… McGrath residents say firefighting from afar will cost more in the end. Mayor Parker says:

“…it’s just a waiting game until something terrible happens.”

Of the year’s 230-some fires so far, the Division of Forestry reports 207 were caused by human activity and just 25 caused by lightning strikes. But these 25 lightning fires have burned 46,000 acres – nine times more area than burned by the many small human-ignited fires.

Mowry says, as always, a few days of rain does not mean fire danger will remain low for long.