FAIRBANKS — Smoky air and the insistent “thwump, thwump, thwump” of helicopter blades have come to signal the arrival of an Alaska summer just as much as the whining of mosquitoes and the mellow rays of the midnight sun have always done.
The amount of land consumed by Alaska wildfires each year varies from hundreds of thousands of acres to as much as 7 million. The men and women who fight these fires get most of the recognition and glory, as they well deserve for doing such dangerous and grueling work.
But what of the people behind the scenes, the ones who coordinate and supply this herculean effort?
“We’re all cogs that make the machine run,” said Karl Meitzner with a grin, interlocking the curled fingers of each hand to mimic a gear. Slim, wiry muscled and deeply tanned, Karl is lord of the supply area. As supply unit leader, it’s his job to make sure that crews are supplied with everything from hose fittings, fuel pumps, coolers, food, clothing, bug dope and even lime for their outhouses.
Meitzner has been in the fire business for 12 years.
“I started out as a ground pounder. I’ve been out there, I know what they need, and I know what it feels like when you don’t get it,” said Meitzner.
Once he started working in the supply unit, he truly found his niche.
“I love it. I take a day off when I have to but I can’t stay away too long,” said Meitzner. He stood in the middle of his domain, a large clearing fringed with tents of various sizes and shapes and filled with the high-pitched beeping tones made by forklifts as they trundled back and forth. Across the road from the supply area is the helibase, where helicopters periodically swoop in to pick up another load of supplies from the staging area or water from a nearby gravel pit. Next door to the supply area is the ground support unit, which provides vehicles such as 4-wheelers and pickup trucks to firefighters and support staff as needed.
Orders are called in to the supply unit from the crews themselves, a system that eliminates the middleman and ensures that orders are filled quickly and accurately. Dorothy, a snowy-haired, cheerful lady, runs the order tent with her two eager young trainees, Lily and Gary. They fill out order forms and give them to the crew, which assemble the requested item on pallets and load them onto cargo nets to be helicoptered out to the firefighters.
Supplies come from the State Logistics Center warehouse, which sends one or two 53-foot-trucks per day to the supply area.
“Basically, the entire supply is sent out each day,” said Meitzner, gesturing around at the numerous, head-high stacks of goods lined up neatly around the yard. “For the last 10 days we’ve sent out about 75,00 pounds of cargo a day.”
Asked what item is ordered the most, Meitzner answers without hesitiation.
“Batteries. We send out 7,000 batteries a day,” said Meitzner, explaining that they are needed to power the two-way radios that are in heavy use on a fire of this size.
The supply area is filled with everything a firefighter could need out on the line. A fuel section holds large cans of pre-mixed gas and oil for chainsaws and pumps, unleaded gas for 4-wheelers and aviation gas for airboats. Cook kits containing a cook pot, coffee pot, frying pan, cook stove, utensils and a gallon of fuel are stacked next to boxes containing hose fittings. Stacks of coolers fill row after row of pallets.
“We got all the coolers in Fairbanks and Palmer. If you go into the store and can’t find a cooler, that’s why,” said Meitzner.
Five-gallon, square plastic bottles of water, called “cubies,” dominate another section of the yard. “We send out 10 to 15 pallets of cubies a day, and there are 36 cubies to a pallet,” said Meitzner.
These large supplies of water are needed because each firefighter has to carry his or her daily supply on their backs and are encouraged to drink as much as possible to combat dehydration, an all-too-common danger when fighting fires.
Gatorade and juice packets are popular items with the firefighting crews, as are the fresh-food boxes. These are sent out once every three days and contain four New York Strip steaks as well as pasta, sandwich makings, hot dogs and other camp foods. Since the crews immediately eat the steaks and spend the next two days subsisting on what is left, “every third day is steak night,” said Meitzner.
A large tent next to the order tent contains boxes of rolled-up green pants and yellow shirts. This fire-resistant clothing is called Nomex and is issued to every person working the fire, both in camp and out on the fireline. Dirty Nomex is collected and shipped to Fairbanks to be laundered and then shipped back out the supply unit.
A hot breakfast and dinner as well as a box lunch is supplied to each worker at the camp.
The camp crew is made up of 17 supply workers and five managers.
The workers are mostly young and many of them are trained firefighters. Most of the crew is from Fairbanks, a few are from Nenana and others are from interior villages, said Meitzner.
Cecilia Simon, the camp crew boss, is from Stevens Village but lives in Fairbanks. She’s been doing her job for about seven years.
“She’s excellent at it. She really knows what she’s doing,” said Meitzner. “Everyone here is really good at what they do or else they wouldn’t be here.”
The average work schedule is 14 days on and two days off, and like most of the crew, Simon sleeps on site in a tent for the duration of her rotation.
“I’m going home tomorrow,” Simon said, flashing a brief but sunny smile. “I get to see my kids.”