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Alaska Native Crews Head South To Fight Wildfires in California, Oregon and Elsewhere

Emily Schwing

Fairbanks, AK - More than 300 firefighters from across are Alaska are in California battling wildfires for at least the next two weeks.  Most of them traveled from Interior Alaska villages for the Alaska Fire Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry.  The crews came through Fairbanks before they left for the lower 48.  For some, it’s a respite from village life. For others it will be the first time they’ve left the state.

For the last week, huge jets have taken off from a runway at Fort Wainwright carrying loads of Type One and Type Two firefighting crews south. Adolf McGinty is the crew representative for 19 other firefighters currently fighting a blaze in California’s Klamath National Forest. “Holy cow, that’s a big responsibility," he says, "but it’s really good, it’s really good to watch these guys and work along with them.”

McGinty was born and raised in Kaltag, a small village that lies along the bank of the Yukon River.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years, fighting fire.” He knows his crew extremely well. As he talks about the various fires he’s fought, he shoots a glance and a smile at Albert Nikoli. “Well, we’re class mates,” Nikoli laughs.

All these firefighters come through Fairbanks from Interior villages like Nulato, Galena, Venetie and Koyukuk for a briefing at the Alaska Fire Service Headquarters. But no one here is in a particularly serious mood. They’re all laughing, smiling and joking. Adolf McGinty says that’s because they all know each other.
“When I sign a crew up in Kaltag, gee, I have to sign up my brothers my uncles and all my relatives," he smiles. "Everybody’s my family and there’s just no way around it.”

In fact, says Albert Nikoli, that’s a good thing. “It’s easier when you know other people, even on the other crews, because you know you can trust them,” he explains.

His 18-year-old son Kyle stands nearby.  This is his rookie year fighting fires. “I'm sort of nervous.  I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing out there, but I’m ready to go," says the younger Nikoli.

He's never left the state before. "No, this is going to be my first time.  He says he's looking forward to a few things. "Just seeing what it’s like down there, seeing how big it is compared to here.”

For many of the Interior’s Alaska Native crews, it’s one of the few opportunities they have to travel outside the state. 55-year old Dennis Eric is from Venetie. He first traveled to Idaho to fight fire in the mid-1990’s.
“It was pretty amazing," he smiles. "We went down in June and it was pretty light up here… just got dark at nine o’clock and it was pretty amazing you know.  It seemed like fall time for me," he laughs.

Summertime darkness is only one of the things Kato Howard touches on during a safety briefing with crews. Howard is the Operations Section Chief for the Alaska Fire Service. He also warns everyone about poison oak. It’s a plant that doesn’t grow in Alaska and it can cause a nasty, itchy rash. “Sometimes the whole crew gets it and it these guys run into it, they’re going to find out if they’re allergic to it and unfortunately, it’s uncomfortable at that temperature," says Howard.

Crews face average day-time temperatures in the 90’s, well above what anyone normally sees in Alaska this time of year. That’s why Howard emphasizes hydration during his briefing. “Yeah, well they drink a lot of coffee and they drink a lot of pop and they drink a lot of Gatorade and that’s a natural habit for them, but you can’t do that habit out there."

Howard says he isn't surprised when someone from Alaska comes home with heat-related illness.

The heat, allergic reactions and dangerous steep, and rocky terrain doesn’t seem to be a problem for Dennis Eric.  Instead, he says, it’s kind of like a paid vacation. From the subsistence lifestyle he leads at home in his village. 

Eric expects to bring home anywhere between three and five thousand dollars for two weeks of firefighting in California. That’s well beyond what he can make in the same time in Venetie.  He jokes about how happy his family is to see him leave. “They’re probably making a wish list and checking it twice," he laughs, "I hope it’s good, I hope it’s a little cheaper.”

Eric plans to be in California for at least two weeks, but he and the rest of his crew could be sent to other fires burning in Oregon and other western states. They’ll al return to Alaska with stories to share once the fire season dies down.