As Fires Burn, Agencies Coordinate Helicopters to Gift Cards for Relief

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Combating the wildfires breaking out across the Alaska involves a mix of local, state, and federal resources. But amid organizational and financial complexities, most of the immediate needs on the ground are quite basic.

A level below ground in the National Guard Armory at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, the State’s Emergency Operation Center is a hive of computer monitors, flat-screen TVs, and telephones.

“Our job is not to fight fires,” said Michael O’Hare, Director of the state’s Emergency Management division. “Our job is to make sure the fire-fighters are putting the fires out.”

Front-line fire fighting is overseen by the Division of Forestry–they’re the ones calling in crews of hot-shots or phoning into the National Guard for helicopters.

By contrast, the EOC feels a bit like a big tent, with representatives fielding phone calls and connecting folks in the Mat-Su or Kenai Boroughs with things they need right away: cots, blankets, pillows, sanitation kits.”

The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management also handles the next phase of the recovery process: Disaster Assistance. That phase started Wednesday, as Borough officials went out with state Troopers to do windshield checks, spotting which properties are damaged. That information will eventually be used by the state in providing funds to home-owners for repairs, and bringing in Federal FEMA money if the destruction is beyond the Borough or state’s ability to pay.

“Natural disasters are always very expensive, particularly in Alaska,” said Bryan Fisher, who, as Incident Manager, is at the nexus for all the agencies and levels of government involved. He and his staff wear red vests so that outside partners can tell who’s on the emergency management team. Surrounded by logistics and complexity, Fisher insists his job is simple: support the local jurisdictions.

At the center of all this is Bryan Fisher, who wears a red vest so that officials from a wide array of outside agencies know he’s part of the emergency management team. Fisher says his job is simple: support the local jurisdictions.

In a complicated crisis situation, just having the room and the know-how to coordinate is key. Emergency managers handling the wildfires are on-call for 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Fisher says having the capacity to navigate all the available resources frees up front-line crews, dealing with everything from fire suppression to evacuations.
“The state of Alaska does not forcibly evacuate anybody, from from anywhere,” Fisher said. “If the homeowner or resident chooses not to leave, (firefighters) take information down on who they are, where they are, and next of kin to be able to notify if, godforbid, something should happen.”

Those serious conversations are a huge challenge.

“The firefighter’s primary mission is to save lives and protect property. And having to be a stranger and come in to say ‘we need you to leave now and if you don’t you’re on your own because we have to protect ourselves, and protect all the rest of the property and homeowners in the area where the fire is’ is (a) very, very difficult conversation to have.”

Officials and relief workers are seeing donations come in, but want Alaskans to know that not all charity is equal when it comes to having the best impact.

Relief agencies helping the state manage shelter and aid refer to something called “the disaster within the disaster.” What they mean is that well-meaning Alaskans rush out to donate goods that end up being more of a burden than a help.

“The thing there’s too much of right now is clothing,” said Tom Gemmel, who works with the Red Cross, which is helping take care of the more than 90 evacuees staying at a shelter in Houston. Red Cross and other groups like the Salvation Army connect individuals with particular needs like eye-glasses, medications, and short-term housing. But they do it through gift certificates and deals with hotels–which depend on cash.

If you want to help but don’t feel comfortable opening your wallet, you should still probably keep the green-beans and old sheets on the shelf.

“The best thing people can do,” Gemmel explained, “is prepare themselves for disaster, because you’re pretty useless as a disaster volunteer if you’re worried about your own family.”

Once the state begins its damage assessment phase, officials will have a clearer picture of specific needs.