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Wildland firefighting in Western Alaska hit by proposed budget cuts

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 27, 2015

The Walker administration's proposal to slash staff at a wildland firefighting camp in Western Alaska will increase the danger to people and property across a massive swath of the state, villagers said.

But the forester behind the decision to cut 16 seasonal positions from the base in McGrath said the state's staggering $3.5 billion deficit precipitated the need for big changes.

"We were asked to look at programmatic reductions and not shave off the top," said Chris Maisch, the state's forestry director. "We were looking for the biggest bang for our buck."

The McGrath camp covers the state's largest firefighting region, a New Mexico-size expanse representing more than half the wildland protected by the state. The camp is in full swing during late spring and summer, when fire danger is highest.

But the camp, 250 miles northwest of Anchorage across the Alaska Range, is also the priciest per employee, said Maisch. It consists of several stand-alone facilities requiring lots of maintenance, and workers in the remote village receive large cost-of-living adjustments. The jobs to be cut include cooks, maintenance staff and about a half-dozen frontline firefighters.

By leaving six positions to manage the seasonal facility, it can be run as a forward-operating base ready to be ramped up if weather and lightning forecasts indicate increased risk of fire, Maisch said.

A helicopter that had been based in McGrath will rove across the state but will return if needed.

"It's not the way we've done business for the last 30 years but the state cannot afford to operate like it has for the last 30 years," he said.

Residents in McGrath, a community of 315, said the proposed cuts won't just increase fire risks. If they come to pass -- in the new fiscal year starting July 1 -- they'll also gut an economy with few jobs left.

Maisch said the cuts, which also include striking the Wildland Fire Academy that trains future responders, will almost certainly happen. A House Finance budget subcommittee accepted them this week. They would save about $1.2 million.

House Finance subcommittees, which are recommending cuts across state departments, also proposed cutting the timber management program that sells timber from state land.

That would potentially remove another $2 million from the Forestry Division's budget, leading to additional job losses in other communities, including six in the Southeast community of Ketchikan, said Maisch.

Combined, he's looking at the prospect of laying off 31 employees, more than 10 percent of his staff.

"These are real people and real jobs, not vacant positions," he said.

McGrath residents said they feel they're being singled out for the biggest cuts, in a year when the wildfire danger is high because there's little snow to moisten the ground.

Villager Loretta Maillelle said she's slated to lose her job as a cook at the camp's mess hall. If that happens, there's a good chance she'll lose her house, she said, unless she can find work outside the village.

But even that may not save her home. She hopes to cook at ConocoPhillips' Kuparuk oil field on the North Slope. But the two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule will mean costly flights to Anchorage and finding someone to watch her three kids, ages 11 to 15.

"If I do all that, I may not have enough for my mortgage," Maillelle said.

Other parts of Forestry's fire-response division aren't losing full positions. By comparison, McGrath is being "decapitated," said Natalie Baumgartner, a longtime village official.

McGrath has already been hit hard by the decision last year to move the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge headquarters elsewhere, she said.

The latest loss of jobs will have a "snowball effect" on the economy, forcing more people to leave, hurting student numbers and school resources, and driving up gas prices already exceeding $7.50 a gallon.

"Families have grown to depend on those positions," she said. "What will they do? There aren't any other jobs in town. Where will they move?"

Naomi Norback said her position as administrative assistant at the firefighting camp is on the chopping block. She said she planned to retire next year anyway but she's disappointed her job may not be there for another villager.

There's also the possibility of greater fire danger. Norback said homes, cabins, fish camps and Native allotments will be increasingly threatened because smokejumpers will have to fly in from other areas to fight fires, delaying responses.

"I'm sick of the argument that we choose to live in the rural areas so we have to expect this and we can't expect what people on the roadside expect," she said. "But when it comes to your home and land and the places you subsist on, your fish camps and trapping cabins, who's to say that isn't as important as someone's house down the road in Soldotna?"

To reduce the risk of delay, the state will aggressively respond to signs of fire, such as an increase in lightning strikes, by boosting staff as needed, Maisch said.

"The idea is to be ahead of an event as opposed to waiting," he said.

But he added that the change will come with a learning curve.

"We'll learn some things in the first few years as we adjust to this new way of doing business."

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