Coming from Montana, I was used to forest fires. I worked as a wild land firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula Montana in the early 80s. In 1983, I applied for an oil and gas leasing job with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Anchorage. I was elated when they hired me. Within two months I was living and working in Alaska.
Three years later BLM started a fire program to educate us of the resources needed to manage a fire budget. I jumped at the opportunity. Twelve of us “pencil pushers” were selected. We were excused from our normal jobs to work for the Alaska Fire Service (AFS). AFS was legendary in the Lower 48. I couldn’t believe I was going to work for this renowned organization.
After completing two weeks of fire training at AFS in April 1987, I worked to pass my ‘step test,’ a measurement of cardio fitness required for all firefighters. If I didn’t pass the step test, I wouldn’t get my ‘red card,’ to qualify me for fire duty. During lunch I ran laps around the Park Strip in Anchorage like a wild woman and pumped iron in our small garage in Spenard.
I was relieved when I passed my step test. I was ready to go.
My first fire assignment was in Central, Alaska. I flew to Fairbanks, where a guy named Stu greeted me for the 160-mile drive to Central on the Steese Highway.
Stu looked me up and down, unimpressed. “Where you from?” he asked, while we waited for my fire pack and duffle to come off the conveyor belt.
“Montana,” I said, spotting my pack and straining to hoist it up on my shoulder.
“Well, you’re a long way from home.” He watched me grab my duffel and swing it over to my left hand.
“Oh no, I live in Anchorage,” I was quick to counter.
“Los Anchorage—the part of Alaska that isn’t,” he drawled. I said nothing. I’d traveled around Alaska enough to hear the jibes about Anchorage; just like we used to joke about Los Angeles when I lived in the Lower 48.
Once I was settled in, the fire management officer informed me I was assigned to aerial fire detection, starting the next morning. I introduced myself to the pilot, Jim, from Colorado Springs and his twin-engine Beechcraft, my ‘office’ for the next several weeks. The next morning I drove a six-pack truck five miles to the airstrip near Circle Hot Springs. Halfway there, a snowy owl crash-landed on the windshield, its wings spread five feet across the glass. Its orange almond-shaped eyes stared at me. I hit the brakes and stilled the truck. The owl lifted and vanished as fast as it had appeared. I took it as a good omen. I had to, I was about to spend limitless hours in an airplane flying over no-man’s-land-Alaska with a Lower 48 pilot I didn’t know.
My job was to look for ‘smokes,’ mostly from lightning strikes, and mark them on a topographic map. This was before GPS, so I used the old-fashioned map and compass method to obtain the fire coordinates for the Fire Situations folks. We spotted eight fires the first week. Most burned in the Preserve or on lands that didn’t threaten people or property. For this reason, these fires were left to burn, but we watched them.
We patrolled northeast Alaska, the ‘East Galena Zone’ in a clockwise circle each day, stopping in Fort Yukon, then flying east along the Porcupine River, south over the Yukon-Charley Rivers Natural Preserve, then landing in Eagle for lunch. Eagle is located on the south bank of the Yukon River near the United States-Canada border. The border mountains were miles of the most jagged granite rocks I’d ever seen. After lunch and visiting with Eagle’s Sarge Waller, we continued northwest, back to Central.
I read Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee when I first came to Alaska. McPhee wrote about Sarge Waller, a colorful, historical figure who lived along the Nation River near Eagle. Sarge greeted us when we landed in Eagle most days around noon. He was a friendly, jovial guy who enjoyed Alaska history and joked how he liked to help out ‘the BLM’s fire folks.’ It was an honor to meet him after reading about him in McPhee’s book. I was glad I read it.
The second week we spotted twice as many fires. Then all hell broke loose and I was pulled off of the flight patrol assignment and told I would join my direct fire attack handline crew on a project fire on the Eielson Air Force Base.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my life would be saved in an unexpected way.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS