Anatomy of Willow’s Wildfire Fight

Fire crews working Friday to keep up gains suppressing the Sockeye fire. (Photo: David Boyd, Sockeye Fire Information).
Fire crews working Friday to keep up gains suppressing the Sockeye fire. (Photo: David Boyd, Sockeye Fire Information).

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Officials lifted the evacuation order Friday morning over parts of Willow where threats from the Sockeye Fire have lessened. That’s possible in large part because of the around-the clock efforts by front-line responders, from elite hotshot crews to logistics managers keeping them supplied with gear.

“This is what’s called a one mile hose-lay kit,” said Ken Cruikshanks, pointing at piles of coiled hoses sealed on a pallet, pre-packed to stretch the full mile if need be. It’s one of many spilling out of two tractor trailers in the Houston High School parking lot, staging ground for fighting the Sockeye Fire 20 miles up the road in Willow.

“We got about half the job,” Cruikshanks said with a quick laugh.

This is the supply closet for the fire fight. And Cruikshank’s role is dealing with the logistics that get hoses from storage depots in Palmer and Fairbanks to firefighters on the front line.

“We can put out a lot of hose in one day,” he adds, “miles and miles of it.” There are also stacks of water-bottles, pop-up tents, and the fire-proof pants and smocks many people are wearing. The reason for so many hoses–more than usual, Cruikshanks explained– is because of all the homes near the blaze. Crews string hose-lines down driveways as a last line of defense protecting structures.

While there’s no shortage of hoses, there have been some issues getting enough Mark 3 water pumps, the work horse of wildland fire fighting, which look like over-sized standing mixers, but weigh 55 pounds and get tossed out of helicopters.

“We’ve never had enough here,” Cruikshanks said, meaningstate-wide. Every year about 200 are ordered up from a depot in Idaho. “That’s primarily because there’s just not enough space to put everything here. We don’t have the budgets to have huge, huge warehouses.”

If Cruikshanks is managing the rearguard, then Josh Lutzinger is in the trenches.

“We were kinda fighting it from the inside out,” said Lutzinger, who, like many of the guys shoveling dinner down in the high school cafeteria around 10pm, had streaks of soot on his hands, face, and unruly beard. Lutzinger leads the Glacier Gannet crew, one of the elite groups of full-time wildfire fighters.

He shows me a map of where his team has worked the last five days stanching the fire on it’s northern flank, removing flamable debris from near people’s homes, using bulldozers to cut a fire line, and extinguishing embers before they have time to damage structures. The crew has to be mindful of the wind, pockets of dense organic incendiary, as well as a cache of explosives in a nearby gravel pit–marked on the map simply as “Explosives.”

Gannett Glacier is just one of 26 crews working on the Sockeye fire, which has cost the state about $1.4 million so far, much of it spent on man-hours for the small army of about 600.

Lutzinger’s 16-hour day starts with breakfast and packing supplies, and ends after crews commute back to camp, eat, and sharpen their tools. “And going to bed so you can do it all the next day. For the next couple weeks.” He and his team can work up to 21 shifts in a row.

Fighting wildfires is expensive. And one of the challenges for officials is getting tax-payers to see all the effort that goes on behind the scenes–whether it’s warehouse space for hoses or training courses for crews. This year, Legislators cut 6% of the preparedness budget that handles wildfires. That means 16 positions in Southwest Alaska will be cut on July first.

One of the biggest things working against them is the calendar.

“By the time the Legislative season comes around January 15th there’s no smoke in the air, wildland fire issues are at a minimum,” said Tom Kurth oversees the state’s fire program, and is Incident Commander for the Sockeye Fire. “Reminding people…what we represent is often times a difficult proposal.”

It’s an issue that Lutzinger feels strongly about as well. A big part of why he’s returned to this job the last 15 years is the camaraderie that comes with working side-by-side, hour-after-hour, with the same 20 people.

“We’ve volunteered hundreds of hours this year–the guys believe in our program, I believe in our program,” Lutzinger said. Asked about the best part of his job he replied, “There’s so many, I’d sit here yackin’ your ear off all day, I love my job a lot.”

The worst part part?

“I couldn’t tell you,” he said between long pauses. “I haven’t thought about that in a while. I try not to think about the bad stuff.

After mulling it over he finally had an answer: “Maybe when you’ve got pack rash.”

Crews have been lucky the last few days, but are mindful that the winds are switching course and conditions could quickly change.

At last count the fire had destroyed 26 homes. Officials with the Mat-Su Burough are scheduled to begin more comprehensive damage assessments starting Monday.