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How it works: Alaska's Interagency Coordination Center and fire management

smoke jumpers.JPG
Kevin Pabinquit/BLM_AFS Smokejumper
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Division of Forestry
Smokejumper Spotter Jared Weber watches the Walrus Islands Fire as aircraft J-90 circles Round Island.

The land in Bristol Bay is split between multiple stewards such as the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation, and tribal organizations such as Choggiung Limited and the Bristol Bay Native Association.

But when it comes to fires however, suppression is managed by the Alaska Division of Forestry.

“The headquarters for the Southwest area is in McGrath,” he said. “It's one of the largest suppression areas in the United States. The fires that we have right now are spread over 70 million acres.”

That was Public Information Officer Brentwood Reid. He noted each land management entity sends their priority and risks to the division such as cabins, fish camps, or Native allotments.

“They are the jurisdictional leads, they're the land managers that the incident commanders on the fire report to through the Alaska Division of Forestry and get direction,” he said.

When an incident is reported, land managers and Division of Forestry officials meet daily to talk about what needs to be done in their respective jurisdictions.

All of the agencies report to the public through the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which includes the US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service.

The southwest region has seen an unusual amount of fires so far this year and Reid says when resources get slim, the interagency center has to prioritize what to do.

“They will look at every fire that is burning, and they essentially organize them one to however many big priorities,” he said. “They look at what requests for resources each of these fires need, and how critical those needs are and what the consequences if they don't get those resources are. And then they make those decisions on where to send the resources.”

The collective of agencies has also activated the Northwest Compact, which allows the state to ask for help from the lower 48. Staff from both Oregon and Washington are currently in Alaska to help quell fires around the state.

Reid says when the governor issues a declaration of emergency, funding becomes available and states can share resources such as trained staff or fire boss planes.

“The way nationally wildland fires are managed, each region in the country has a coordination center that calculates the risk to fires and large fires on any given day based on weather based on fuels, availability of resources, and then they step up what's called the preparedness level,” he said.

The preparedness level assesses how many resources can be brought in to deal with fires. If a fire reaches a certain point, Reid says land management agencies can even call for help from other countries.

“Big seasons, when, as you see in the lower 48, it's actually unfortunately becoming more common, where we have a lot of very large fires in the West,” he said. “The land managers even go outside the United States, and they'll bring resources from Canada bring sources from the Australia.”

Smoke has cleared in the area over the past several days. But when fires burn in the area, smoke can cause breathing problems and the Dillingham Fire Department recommends sensitive or compromised individuals wear N-95 masks when it’s smoky outside.

Masks are free and available at city hall in Dillingham or in the blue building in the harbor near Dillingham.

Cooler weather and rain swept the Bristol Bay region over the weekend. This week is expected to be warm and sunny, and a burn ban is in effect in Dillingham.

Contact the author at Brian@kdlg.org or call (907) 842-2200