FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Fire Service building at Fort Wainwright has become a crossroads for firefighting personnel who are rushing in from all over the state and country to help with the worst fire season in decades.
At its peak over the weekend, the chow line was out the door, tents were thick in the staging area and the sound of old friends becoming reacquainted was heard often as firefighters from places as diverse as Florida and Nondalton came together.
"It's kind of like having a family reunion when you're going out on these gigs," said Gil Knight, a fire information officer with a bushy mustache from Ely, Minn. "Especially this year up here. There's so many crews cycling through."
He'd already run into friends from Montana, Oregon and northern California.
As if on cue, an old buddy sat down in front of him and they picked up right where they left off a couple years back.
"If you stand around long enough, you'll hear a hundred different conversations going on, glad-handing, 'How you doin'?' " Knight said.
At last count, more than 2,711 firefighters and support personnel were deployed in Alaska. Because of the long, hot fire season - at almost 3.6 million acres burned, this is the third most active season since 1950 - personnel from Outside have been called north, a rare occurrence, especially for this time of year.
As of Sunday, there were 1,499 people from the Lower 48 committed to Alaska fires, "give or take a few," fire information officer Andy Alexandrou said.
The first of several engines arrived from points south Saturday after the long drive north.
Smokejumpers, hand crews and specialists of all kinds were on their way to or from a problem fire. The list of states involved in Alaska reached 25 quickly as a group of fire service employees rattled off those they've encountered in the last few days.
"Just about any state west of the Mississippi is here," said Tom Schmidt, the AFS helibase manager. But the Mississippi River is no firm dividing line. There are firefighters here from New Jersey, New Hampshire, North Carolina. The list goes on.
"And a whole heck of a lot of us are going, 'This is my first time in Alaska.' 'Yeah? Me, too,"' Knight said.
One of those first-timers is Kevin LaBella, a Colorado smokejumper who's usually based out of McCall, Idaho, this time of year. He said he had always hoped to come to Alaska in his 22-year career, but it took a near-record season and continued extreme fire danger to lift the state high enough on the priority list.
So far, he's seen more of Alaska than most lifetime residents. He's been to Fort Yukon, Bettles, Galena, St. Marys, McGrath and more.
"We kind of did the world tour," LaBella said. "A lot of shuffling going on, putting you where the action is and pulling you if nothing happens."
Now that he's here, LaBella said he hopes to stick around for a second shift. He isn't sure if he'll be allowed to. Fire season is kicking up in the Lower 48 and his bosses may change national priorities soon.
As he finished his dinner Sunday, he said he expected his final days in Alaska to be busy, whatever his departure date.
At that time, he was one of just 20 smokejumpers available for initial attack, a paper-thin margin considering the number of new fire starts every day.
"Looking out there," LaBella said as he gestured out the window at the huge Boundary Fire plume north of town, "I thought I would be gone today. It could easily happen in the next two to three hours, empty out the base."
In addition to the first-timers, several firefighting personnel with experience in Alaska are coming back to the state as well.
Anne Jeffery once worked in Southcentral but moved on to the National Interagency Fire Center where she is group manager for external affairs. She has come back to Alaska for 10 days to lend a hand.
The fire season up here, she said, has gotten the attention of fire managers in the Lower 48.
"The perspective is this is unusual," Jeffery said. "In the Lower 48, this is the time they come into high fire season. The end of July, beginning of August is when it really starts picking up."
Alexandrou said Jeffery is just one of many former Alaskans he's encountered in the past few weeks. The reunion continues every day and each former state resident heading north brings a deep cache of specialized knowledge to the battle.
"I think (moving Outside) is a new chapter in a lot of people's lives," he said. "They move on, they get a promotion. The thing I can't help but focus on is the background they get here is a lot more complex than they get in the Lower 48."
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