Training Alaskans to Fight Alaska Wildfires
John Graft, USFWS, teaches a unit for the Portable Pumps
and Water class. Photo Credit: Tony Navarro/US Forest Service
Graduation ceremonies on June 11 at the Tok School.
Photo Credit: Maggie Rogers, Alaska Division of Forestry
During her training at the Alaska Wildfire Academy, Joricha Thomas of Nikolai found herself challenged in ways she hadn’t expected. There were the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, the physical training, the hours in the classroom, and time spent away from her 2-year-old daughter. But Thomas, 20, also surprised herself by rising to the challenge.
“It was more than I expected, but I learned about not giving up. I wanted to set an example for my daughter,” said Thomas, who is from the Athabascan village of Nikolai in Alaska’s Interior. “I feel really proud of myself.”
For Cy Conrad, from the village of Tanana, the opportunity for a career fighting wildfires was worth the effort.
“I learned that the academy is a lot of hard work and it’s tough, but I also learned to be committed and it will pay off in the end,” said Conrad, 18.
Thomas and Conrad were among the 33 students to graduate on June 11 from the Alaska Wildfire Academy in Tok, Alaska. The academy was established to train Alaskans to meet the need for wildland firefighters in Alaska. It is a cooperative effort of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, the Alaska Department of Labor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Doyon Ltd., Alaska Gateway School District, and the University of Alaska Interior Aleutians Campus. This was the second year for the program, which graduated 40 students last year.
John Graft, a 26-year Alaska firefighter and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service liaison to the academy, helped provide critical leadership and mentoring.
“Most of these young men and women are right out of high school and are looking for their place in the world,” Graft said. “We show them that the respect and self discipline they need to serve on a crew can be applied to the rest of their lives as well.”
Graft said the students learned a great deal from the instructors who came from throughout Alaska and the Lower 48. “These folks really came through,” he said.
During their three weeks of training, the students learned about fire behavior, first aid, aviation, and fire management. In addition, they were taught to use firefighting hand tools, chainsaws, and pumps. But Jeff Hermanns, Tok Area Forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said it’s the life lessons that are the foundation of the program.
“They are complete strangers and they come together and are sleeping in tents and spending 16 hours a day learning how to function as a crew and a team,” Hermanns said. “We don’t allow visitors. We’re trying to simulate a 21-day fire assignment so that they develop trust in their crew mates.”
The students earn nationally recognized wildland fire qualifications and certifications that prepare them for immediate assignment to wildland fires in Alaska at the completion of the program. Twenty-eight of the 33 students who graduated were put on crews and dispatched to fires two days after graduation. The students also earn 10 college-level credits from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Interior Aleutians Campus. The hope is that some of the students will eventually go on to get a two-year degree in fire management.
“We have so many kids throughout Alaska who are just really talented and need an opportunity and we have a huge need for qualified, trained firefighters,” Hermanns said.
Joricha Thomas especially liked the training in CPR and first aid and the 10 college credits have her thinking of the future. “I like the medical side of things,” she said. “I might even try college.”
Last Updated: July 11, 2011