The Rim Fire’s front line: Alaskans among thousands

Written by Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat September 10, 2013 11:30 am

Nicanoff Evan (left), 23, and Ricky Andrew, 27, both of Lower Kalskag, Alaska, were assigned to battle the Rim Fire on Aug. 25. They were set to return home this morning. Alex MacLean / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Ricky Andrew left Alaska for the first time in his life on Aug. 25 to help battle the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County.

He and his cousin, Nicanoff Evan, 23, spent 10 days working on the fire with five crews from Alaska. Andrew served as driver for the crew throughout the rotation and worked on fire lines with Evan. 

The Alaskans were among 3,104 firefighters and support personnel — hailing from all across the nation — assigned to the blaze as of Monday morning.

Nearly two-thirds — including Evan and Andrew — are staying at a base camp in the township of Tuolumne, which has doubled in size in a few short, intense weeks. Most of the other fire personnel are staying at the Incident Command Center on Cherry Lake Road and at various smaller spur camps in the forest.

“I’ve been enjoying every minute of it,” Andrew, 27, said Monday afternoon after completing his final overnight shift.

Both men, each with two children, live in Lower Kalskag, a town only accessible via plane or boat with a population of fewer than 300 people.

This is Andrew’s first and Evan’s third summer fighting fires with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

“This is the biggest fire I’ve ever been on and I’m proud of it,” Evan said.

They initially stayed at the Drew Meadow fire camp on Cherry Lake Road but were moved several days ago as part of the incident command team’s larger effort to divert more resources to the fire’s northwestern flank.

“It’s really nice out here,” Evan said of Tuolumne County, though he had little opportunity to do much exploring due to working long shifts. “I like all of the really big trees and nice scenery — but not the weather (referring to the heat).”

On Monday, they were waiting to get “checked out” of the camp so they could go back home. Evan and Andrew were both scheduled to return home on a 4:30 a.m. flight, along with all the other teams from Alaska.

Firefighters must return all equipment borrowed from the supply depot, undergo a vehicle inspection and file paperwork in order to get paid.

When they make it home, they must confirm their arrival with the command team.

It’s basically the reverse of the “check in” process with the incident command center.

The firefighters — sent to the Rim Fire from various departments around the United States — log-in upon arrival through a federal electronic system. When they arrive, they are given an order that tells them where to go and what to do — then get down to business.

“It helps us make sure they arrive safely at the incident,” said Paul Gibbs, spokesman for the California Interagency Incident Management Team 1, which is currently overseeing the Rim Fire operation.

At one point, more than 4,800 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the Rim Fire, with some coming from as far away as Los Angeles, New Mexico and New Jersey.

According to Gibbs, nearly 2,000 people were staying at the Tuolumne camp on Monday, though most were out working on the fire in the early afternoon. He said about a third of the camp’s residents were support personnel, who manage operations at the base.

“When you put up a camp with nearly 2,000 people, it’s like you’re doubling the size of the community,” Gibbs said. Indeed, the town of Tuolumne itself has a population of less than 1,800, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

Some fire personnel at the camp were living in small tents, but Gibbs said many of the firefighters prefer sleeping under the stars. Those assigned to the night shift, which included the Alaskan crews, were able to sleep in air-conditioned truck trailers called “Mobile Sleepers” during the day.

The camp features a mobile shower with 15 individual stalls, a gas refueling station open 24 hours a day, a first-aid tent, and multiple offices in various tents that are supplied with electricity. Contractors are sometimes used to help install certain amenities. 

“The big camps like this are essentially little cities,” Gibbs said.

There is also an open wireless Internet connection so firefighters can check email or chat with family back home. However, Gibbs said most work up to 15-hour shifts and have little down time.

Crews usually rotate out after 14 days but can request an extension to stay a week longer.

Though the fire was 80 percent contained on Monday, Gibbs said it will likely take a  couple weeks before full containment is achieved. That means the camp will be bustling for a bit longer.

“There will be a presence for at least a few weeks,” he said. “We still have quite a bit of work to do.”