Alaskan Wildfires Provide Jobs For Many

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- Every summer for the past 40 years, William Tritt has left his home in Arctic Village to find work with fire crews.

This season, the 57-year-old Tritt is putting in 15-hour days as a crew boss at the Boundary fire camp in Fairbanks - about 290 miles from home - making sure the camp stays in good shape for those laboring on the 312,000-acre fire about 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

The fires that have burned about 2 million acres of Alaska wildlands this year also are putting paychecks in the pockets of hundreds of Alaskans like Tritt.

``It'll help a lot of people, this fire,'' Tritt said.

Like many rural Alaskans, whose tiny villages are accessible only by boat or plane and have little cash economy, Tritt depends on the money he makes during the short fire season to help pay bills the rest of the year.

As of late Wednesday night, close to 1,700 people were playing some role in battling eight major blazes raging throughout Alaska this year, said Brett Ricker, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright.

Cooks, bulldozer operators, supply workers - the jobs run the gamut, and the pay varies, Ricker said. Entry-level firefighters make about $14.50 an hour, plus overtime. Some are just called up for a couple of weeks at the height of the fire season, but firefighters who work steadily throughout the summer can pull in more than $18,000, Ricker said.

Of course, they work long hours and may get only a few days off in that time.

``You live and breathe fire, that's about it,'' Ricker said.

Charlotte Mayo, who works in the finance section at the Boundary camp, said this is her sixth year playing a role in the annual firefighting drama.

``Soon as I started smelling the smoke, I missed it again,'' said Mayo, who headed to Fairbanks a week ago from her hometown of Allakaket. ``I was thinking I was missing out.''

More than two dozen other people from Allakaket, population 102, either have jobs on firefighting or support crews, or are ready to be called up.

Fort Yukon, a community of about 575, is serving as the command post for the 325,000-acre Solstice complex of fires. The closest fire is about 25 miles northwest of town.

The Solstice fires have put about 51 Fort Yukon people to work, and are fueling sales at local businesses. Some residents are also renting out their all-terrain vehicles and boats.

The federal Bureau of Land Management will pay $63 a day for an ATV rental and about $500 a day for a boat, said Annie Larsen, fire information officer for Solstice complex.

``This is a good opportunity for us right now,'' said Roberta Thomas, who's working in the warehouse supply unit. ``There are limited jobs available, so when fire season comes around it's a good opportunity for men and women.''

Larsen said the agency's policy throughout the country is to purchase supplies locally and hire residents when possible for firefighting. That saves transportation costs, provides local knowledge to those running the operations and helps local economies.

In many states, wildfires hit remote communities that depend on tourism for jobs. Fires dampen that activity, but putting firefighting money into a community can help offset that effect, Larsen said.

Those working on the fires hope they don't have to pay too high a price for the temporary jobs.

Fort Yukon residents worry the fires could endanger relatives battling the blazes, damage remote cabins where boats, snowmobiles and hunting and fishing gear are stored, and affect wild game they depend on to feed their families.

``It's not the kind of economy that we would like to see, but it does help the local people with some of the needed monies,'' said Clarence Alexander, who's working in the communications unit at Fort Yukon.

``Hopefully, it gets under control because the whole area's like a farm to us,'' Alexander said. ``We have moose and deer, and all the area's under distress.''