ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Most of Alaska’s wildland fire crews are helping fight fires in the continental U.S., including western blazes that have triggered evacuations of thousands of people, officials said.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said 450 to 500 Alaska residents are currently helping fight fires outside the state, The Anchorage Daily News reported Sunday.
Alaska fire crews have a history of assisting beyond the state’s borders. But this year is unique with the necessity of also trying to suppress the coronavirus that could strike personnel.
Fire crews were flown to other states on planes with socially distanced seating, carrying about half of the normal number of passengers, Ipsen said.
Michael Trimmer, who coordinates three Alaska crews fighting wildfires in Colorado, said it is nerve-wracking to think about them contracting the virus.
The Alaska crews operate as family units and wear masks when they are near other groups, Trimmer said.
“We’re really trying to take extra precaution so that we all come home safe,” Trimmer said.
During a normal year, crews fighting wildfires in the continental U.S. camp in football fields or school gyms. Trimmer said this year they are spread out far from each other, which more closely resembles how crews work in Alaska.
“A lot of them live a subsistence lifestyle, and they don’t handle sack lunch after sack lunch too well,” Trimmer said.
Alaska restricted burning early in the summer, which Trimmer said he believes helped cut back on the number of wildfires caused by humans. Despite a quiet year in Alaska, crews have taken time to help firefighters in other states.
“Even with that kind of a season, there’s not enough of us up there,” Trimmer said. “So we’re happy to come down here and help out and repay the favor.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.