Each spring, those with a predilection for thrills are drawn from all over to fight fires in Alaska, which holds some of the most daunting firefighting terrain in the United States.
Elite fighters for the Alaska Fire Service smokejumper and hot-shot crews tend to come from the Western U.S. in particular. And as a breeding ground for woodsmen weaned on all manner of outdoor recreation, Durango has historically produced some of Alaska’s top crew men and women, hence the start of the “Durango-Alaska pipeline.”
“Durango people started going up, and they all did a good job – everyone was impressed – and if you got a recommendation from a Durango guy, it was a lot easier to get the job,” said Eric Elliott, who at 21 made his first trek to Fairbanks in 2009 to work with the North Star Fire Crew, a feeder for the Chena Interagency Hotshot Crew, which he joined in 2011.
“It’s just kind of the Durango culture. Since we were kids, almost everyone I knew was always hiking around, camping and basically firefighting without the fire. Just screwing around, chopping trees down – it comes naturally. We grew up at a high elevation and are pretty active, so it wasn’t a far jump.”
Opening the pipeline
The pipeline, a colloquialism reportedly coined more than 10 years ago by Bureau of Land Management air tactical supervisor Charlie Brown, refers to the word-of-mouth network of Durangoans who join Alaska fire crews each summer.
A smokejumper in younger days, today Brown coordinates airspace above fires to support fighters on the ground. For years, he spent summers in Alaska and winters in Durango, where he noticed a slew of young talent untapped by Alaska Fire Service.
While doing some arborist work around 2002, Brown met a driven young man whose name he doesn’t recall. Brown suggested he apply for the hot-shot crews, which he did with success. Upon his return, he told friends, who applied the next year and joined, opening the pipeline.
Chris Lane, an arborist who lived in Durango, traveled eight years ago to Fairbanks when he was 22. His tree-felling experience proved an asset.
“The pipeline functions off the recommendation of whoever goes up there and dominates, and you recommend someone for the next season,” he said.
Smokejumpers and hot-shot crews may travel anywhere in the U.S., but Alaska crews are eminently high quality and come with a strong firefighting background and recommendation from a previous supervisor.
Hot-shot crews consist of about 23 fighters, and smokejumpers parachute into hot spots individually. A place on a crew one summer doesn’t guarantee a spot the next year.
Making the cut
The physical training is grueling.
“It entails stuff like carrying 90 pounds up a ski area, 10-mile runs, and if you can’t hang, they cut you,” said Gavin Stroud, 22, who followed in his brother’s footsteps and fought the North Star fire last summer, when more than 5 million acres of Alaska wilderness burned.
As smokejumper supervisor Robert Yeager said, if you’re not used to it, you’ll feel it, which is why Alaska crews have high turnover. This year, there are about 10 new applicants. There’s room for all, but he said they’ll be lucky to keep six or seven.
Roughly half of each year’s fire-battling hopefuls are sent home before training is over. After a month of training, crews are flown in on a bush plane and left a couple miles outside a fire to set up camp. Days are filled with digging firebreaks, which can slow a fire’s progress and create a barrier to protect villages; chain-saw work clearing trees; and miles of walking.
“We’ve fought in the lower 48, and it’s nothing like Alaska,” Stroud said.
Battling the elements
Ecology brews a miserable cocktail of mosquitoes, constant dampness, thick raspberry brambles, the occasional bear encounter and an endless haze of smoke from fires ignited by lightning bolts that strike by the thousands.
North of the Arctic Circle, around the summer solstice, the sun resists the horizon for weeks. The Midnight Sun means long hours for Alaska Fire Service.
Last summer’s fire season was a record-breaker, Yeager said. Crews from every base in the lower 48 helped. The numbers are staggering: There were nearly 94,000 lightning strikes recorded in a two-week period.
A typical shift is 16 hours, but it can be longer during an initial attack, or first day of the fire. Stroud said he’s worked as long as 24 hours straight. Sometimes crews work 21 consecutive days before they get a two-day break.
Yeager, who began smokejumping in 1992, recalls top performers coming from Durango.
Durango High School graduate Ryan Ehlers took his maiden voyage to Alaska at 24 to join the Chena Hotshot Crew in 2004. That year, 6 million acres were destroyed. He returned to Chena Hotshots the following summer, and in 2006, rookied for the smokejumpers.
Alaska’s open country is vast. There are “little pockets of civilization surrounded by wilderness, instead of little pockets of wilderness surrounded by civilization,” Ehlers said.
Occasionally, Ehlers’ crew killed curious black bears that persistently wandered into camp.
And the little things are sometimes what causes fighters to break.
“The mosquitoes can definitely make people crack,” Stroud said. “It’s unreal how many are eating your face.”
The big adventure
But there are upsides. Fighters often meet the natives in the isolated villages they’re working to protect.
“I wrote a lot in my journal, and I was super lonely, but then you leave and realize where you’ve been and the people you helped,” Stroud said. “We saved a bunch of villages last summer. And it’s great money.”
Like others, he made enough in the summer to take the winter off. His first year, Stroud made $28,000 in one season, which begins in May and ends at the end of July or August for hot-shot crews. Jumpers typically stay longer, into late summer or early fall.
And the high draws many to reapply in the spring.
“I think that Alaska is a big, giant state of adventure,” Brown said. “You could take Colorado and drop it in Alaska, and it would be a drop in the bucket. It’s wild, and the personality of folks that live in this town are active, athletic, looking for adventure.”