When a lightning strike started the Swan Lake Fire on June 5, wildland firefighters from the Mat-Su Valley responded to aid in controlling the blaze.
According to an update on June 30 by Incident Commander Tom Kurth of the Alaska Incident Management Team, the fire was 17 percent contained with 487 personnel working to put the fire out. Smoke has drifted from the Kenai Peninsula north into much of Southcentral Alaska and blocked the familiar backdrop of mountains from view. Anchorage issued the first dense smoke advisory in its history, and the fire has already burned 68,060 acres.
The Pioneer Peak Interagency Hot-Shot Crew responded to the Kenai Peninsula on June 5 to tend to smaller fires and was redirected to the Swan Lake Fire on June 12. More than 100 interagency hot-shot crews exist, mostly along the Western United States. Interagency Hot-Shot crews have to be more qualified than typical wildland fire crews, with more training and experience allowing them to respond to any major fire within North America.
“It was very obvious to almost all of us that that fire was going to go big this week if we didn’t get more resources on it,” said Pioneer Peak Superintendent Kris Baumgartner. “It was pretty obvious how well it was burning and how hot and dry it was that we needed to get on the ground and get prepared to burn those lines.”
Baumgartner has been a firefighter for 14 years, seven of those with Pioneer Peak, and has served as the superintendent for three years. Pioneer Peak and their Valley counterparts, Gannett Glacier, were instrumental in the success in fighting the Swan Lake fire. Baumgartner and his crew were intimately familiar with the area, having fought the East Fork Fire on the Peninsula in 2017. As soon as Pioneer Peak got on the ground at the Swan Lake Fire, they had to lay hoses for five miles in both directions to pump water out of the east fork of Moose Creek, an operation which took two full 16-hour days. Baumgartner credited Squad Boss Lucas Schlemme for completing the very complicated pumping operation.
“We’re safe, but we’re aggressive,” Baumgartner said. “We were … trying to do five things at one time and we ended up being pretty successful on our chunk of line and that was due to Pioneer Peak and Gannett Glacier both the crews right out of Palmer. It was definitely a group effort with two crews and air support, really great pilots.”
Baumgartner’s Pioneer Peak crew is made up of 21 wildland firefighters which may need to be split up into as many as five different groups.
When Baumgartner began his firefighting career, the size of the Swan Lake Fire would’ve been considerable, but times have changed and the fire is not as magnanimous compared to other recent wildfires in Alaska. The dry, warm conditions did not help the matter, and a majority of both Valley crews were battling flu symptoms. With the crew split up, Baumgartner had to rely on his squad bosses.
“I need studs all the way through the line from one, myself down to number 21, and that ability to do that is solid middle management and training all of your folks, training them up to be able to function in the position above them at all times. When we split up we’re leaning heavily all the way down the chain of command into senior firefighters,” Baumgartner said.
The Pioneer Peak crew cut a 60-foot wide, two-and-a-half-mile long saw cut line, eliminating all of the black spruce along the line. Baumgarnter also lauded saw boss Kyle Bjalme, who managed the aircraft and carried a large weight on his shoulders. Assistant Superintendent Russ Spargo was instrumental in doing some of the fire reconnaissance, hiking dozens of miles a day to get a better view of the blaze.
“The name of the game in wildfire is being dialed on logistics, specifically in Alaska,” Baumgartner said. “I keep the crew fed, I try to keep them happy, and I try to stop them from getting on each other’s nerves too much throughout the season. They’re family.”
Baumgartner said that his crew consumes 10 boxes of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) daily and drink hundreds of gallons of water as well as going through hundreds of batteries to power radios and GPS equipment. The crew has to pack out all of it’s trash in burlap bags, and Baumgartner said that fiber tape and parachute cord are essential logistical items. The use of Utility Task Vehicles aided in the crew’s movements and attempting to keep the fire on the north side of the pipeline. While the crew of 21 rough, rugged men and women battle the blazes throughout the state and nation year after year, it is not a paycheck that entices this particular brand of Alaskan.
“What keeps me coming back it isn’t the fire, not that it doesn't impress me sometimes, mother nature is an impressive thing. It’s the people, it’s just the people. It’s the caliber of people and I get to choose who I hire on my program and most of the questions that I ask really have nothing to do with fighting fire,” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner says that more important than physical fitness or experience is a firefighter’s attitude, demeanor and willingness to be part of a team. Baumgartner enjoys watching his fellow firefighters grow as people. During the offseason, Baumgartner is proud to meet his employee’s parents and show off how much their son or daughter has changed for the better during the fire season. Baumgartner said that not every community plagued by wildfire is as receptive and welcoming to those attempting to fight it as Alaskans. The Pioneer Peak crew felt the support of the Kenai residents, even receiving a standing ovation from a community meeting of over 200 people.
“At times when you’re not feeling that great, you’re hurt, you're sore, you haven’t been home in 20 days, that’s really what makes it worthwhile,” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner said that he does not enjoy being on the news and fighting fires in people’s backyards, and would much rather fight a remote fire without as much impact on individuals. Baumgartner praised the administration and organization around the fire in the success of working to put it out.
“These are tough, tough individuals. These are amazing amazing human beings that would really do anything for anybody,” Baumgartner said. “Every year when people leave wildfire it’s that that they miss. They miss bleeding, sweating, crying, and laughing with their family that’s out here and that even spreads beyond the crew.”