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New rules could decrease ranks of emergency firefighters in Alaska

FAIRBANKS — The number of emergency firefighters in Alaska could decrease due to a proposed rule required to join the ranks.

A proposal would require firefighters to pass a physical exam beginning next year before they are hired. The proposal has been submitted but not yet approved.

PJ Simon, a former wildland firefighter and former chief of the village of Allakaket, thinks the new medical standards for employment would be too stringent.

Emergency firefighters crews have always stayed in good shape and passed all fitness requirements, Simon said.

"Of course, we need physically fit firefighters, but now it seems like we are preparing firefighters for a trip to the moon instead of a wildland firefighting assignment," he said.

Emergency firefighting crews have declined in Alaska from more than 70 crews in the 1980s and 1990s to 20 crews this year, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Sunday.

The continued migration from rural communities to urban centers is also contributing to the decline, said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for Alaska's Division of Forestry.

Another reason for the decline in the number of emergency firefighter crews in Alaska is growth of agency crews in the state. Agency crews work through the summer and are dispatched before emergency firefighters.

Another type of crew being introduced in Alaska is managed by a business or government and will be contracted to provide fire services to the Alaska Fire Service.

This type of crew is already common in the Pacific Northwest and is gaining traction in the Rocky Mountains, said Hudson Plass, who coordinates the emergency firefighter program for the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska Fire Service.

However, the decrease in firefighting crews isn't all bad.

Fewer crews boosts the workload for existing operations, which makes firefighting a more dependable source of income.

Right now, there are enough crews for the average number of assignments inside and outside of the state, Plass said.

"This year, the total number of crews that we've come down to more closely matches what the need is," he said.

Correction: In a story Aug. 6 about required physical exams for emergency firefighters, The Associated Press reported erroneously that firefighters will have to take exams before being hired. A proposal for such firefighters to pass a physical exam beginning next year has been submitted but not yet approved.

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