JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
On June 5, 2019, lightning struck the refuge around Swan Lake, in the Kenai Peninsula, only 140 miles from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It eventually turned into a 94,000-plus acre wildfire.
Agencies from around the state responded in attempt to contain the fire and protect the infrastructure that keeps Alaska cities running.
On June 24 the 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services Flight, assigned to JBER, answered the call for more assistance and sent 12 of its personnel to help aid with the containment.
This is not the first time JBER has assisted in wildfire efforts.
“For the past 10 years, JBER has consistently sent the taskforce out to support the wildland incidents when there has been a threat across the state of Alaska,” said Jon Glover, 673d CES wildlands support module lead.
The taskforce went out on a 72-hour assignment from June 24-27, as part of Defense Support of Civil Authorities, which the 673d Air Base Wing commander authorized under her immediate authority. The taskforce comprises two engines, a tender and a command vehicle.
“The biggest challenge with fighting the Swan Lake fire is the scale; it’s a moving target, and not very easy to access with the lack of roads in Alaska,” said David Donan, JBER fire chief.
The taskforce patrolled a 13-mile stretch of Sterling Highway, while working 16 hour shifts, protecting power lines that are the main power source for the city of Homer.
Rebuilding these power lines would cost $1 million per mile, and each mile would take month to rebuild, so protecting them was vital, according to Chief Donan.
“JBER is leading the rest of the Air Force in interagency cooperation between fire emergency and the wildland and fire branch,” Donan said.
The individuals whom the 673rd CES sent to aid with fire containment partnered with several agencies including more than 500 firefighters, the state of Alaska Division of Forestry, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Incident Management Team, Alaska State Troopers and local contractors.
Working with so many agencies comes with many challenges, the biggest one being communication. Each agency has occupational specific vocabulary and means of communication being used, so transitioning into an interagency partnership can be difficult. However, JBER firefighters are well prepared to overcome this challenge.
“JBER has the skillset, expertise and the history in doing this operation for a very smooth transition. In a wildland incident is everyone shows up for the same common goal, so the language you speak doesn’t really matter, everyone works to deal with the same threat so it’s a smooth operation,” said Glover.
With few resources and the rough terrain of Alaska, at this time the most that the first responders can do is make an effort to protect our cities and infrastructure.
“At this time of year, especially in Alaska you really have to prioritize which areas you are going to engage the fire at. There are not enough resources to go around, so we are really at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Glover said.
Be aware of burn bans, when fires are permitted, and what could potentially start a fire.
“Accidents happen all the time; the best thing you can do is call the right people right away,” said Glover. “A difference in 10 minutes on a response can be huge in being able to catch a fire in the woods.”
For more information on safe fire practices, visit ‘JBER Fire Prevention Official’ Facebook page. For emergencies, call 911.