Chugiak, Anchorage firefighters joined forces to help with Mat-Su wildfire

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 - 13:51
  • Firefighter / medic Molly Swanson with Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue mops up hot spots during the McKinley Fire along the Parks Highway on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)
  • Equipment from the Anchorage Fire Department, Caswell Fire Department, Alaska Division of Forestry and the U.S. Air Force Wildland Fire parked near the McKinley Fire in the Mat-Su. (Zak Overmyer photo)
  • A column of smoke from the McKinley Fire seen by Chugiak and Anchorage Fire Department crews while working to protect a home during the McKinley Fire. (Zak Overmyer photo)
  • Chugiak Engineer/EMT Molly Swanson receives some thankful affection from Brutus, “a dog the whole crew enjoyed seeing throughout the week as we extinguished hot spots around his home,” said CVFRD captain Zak Overmyer. (Zak Overmyer photo)
  • Zak Overmyer photo
  • Zak Overmyer photo
  • Zak Overmyer photo
  • CVFRD firefighter/EMR Kaylee McClain extinguishes a hot spot on the McKinley Fire. (Zak Overmyer photo)
  • CVFRD firefighter/EMT Kaylee McClain clears a fallen tree of a driveway during the McKinley Fire. (Zak Overmyer photo)
  • Anchorage Fire Department Engine 4 lays a hoseline on one of the flanks of the McKinley Fire on Aug. 18, 2019. (Zak Overmyer photo)

Chugiak’s fire department is an all-volunteer operation, so it’s no surprise the group jumped at the chance to help out with wildfires burning in Southcentral Alaska.

Members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company have been providing support for the McKinley Fire burning in the Mat-Su, sending engines and firefighters to help protect homes and other structures from the wildfires that broke out earlier this month.

“Our crews are still busy,” the group posted on its Facebook page on Aug. 21 alongside an Anchorage Daily News article featuring a lead photo of a CVFRD firefighter using a Pulaski axe to help mop up hot spots on the McKinley fire.

The crews joined other departments from across the region providing aid to wildland crews battling the blaze, which has destroyed more than 50 homes in the Mat-Su near the Parks Highway.

CVFRD captain Zak Overmyer said the department got a call on Saturday, Aug. 17 from State Forestry asking for help. Immediately a task force made up of Chugiak and Anchorage Fire Department firefighters was readied.

“Once our crews got together, we met up at the fire house,” he said.

Chugiak mustered 11 firefighters, two brush trucks, a water tender and a command vehicle. At the stationhouse on the Old Glenn, they met up with firefighters from the Anchorage Fire Department, which sent another 10 firefighters along with two engines, a brush truck and a battalion chief. From there the two departments joined as one, heading to the Valley to fight a fire that was rapidly growing into a wind-fueled homewrecker.

“We kinda convoyed up there,” Overmyer said.

On Sunday the winds picked up and sent the fire over the Parks Highway. The local crews were tasked with doing “triage” on homes and structures by moving from house to house and determining what could be done to save the building. It was intense work, with smoke and flames moving quickly. If a home had good defensible space, he said efforts were made to increase that space and save the home. If not, firefighters had to move to the next house as the flames closed in.

“That was something none of us had seen before,” he said.

The work is in addition to the group’s normal efforts in Chugiak, where it put out at least three small brush fires in August.

After the initial fire storm, the task force remained in the Valley for a week mopping up spot fires and helping bolster the ranks of wildland firefighters.

Overmyer said Chugiak firefighters gained valuable experience working on the blaze.

“There were a lot of people who had never been on a fire like this,” he said.

Another benefit of the work was the cooperation between Chugiak and Anchorage crews. Although the groups have a good working relationship, Overmyer said joining forces for the first time helped strengthen ties between the neighboring departments.

“It went extremely well,” he said. “We made a lot of good friends and worked extremely well as a team.”

The work went so well, he said, the crew is likely to team up again soon to work the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula. On Tuesday CVFRD was in discussions with State Forestry about helping out down there.

“It sounds like they want us to do the same thing,” he said.

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