The Dunleavy administration unveiled a $3.8 million plan Monday to add 30 full-time firefighting positions and re-open the state’s wildland firefighting academy next fiscal year.
Under the governor’s plan, the state would double the number of new firefighting positions by fiscal year 2024, bringing the total to 60.
The governor’s plan, which was introduced at a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, received early support from Interior lawmakers who heard the proposal.
30 new positions in fiscal 2023
The fire protection initiative is included in Dunleavy’s spending plan for next fiscal year. Thirty full-time positions would be added at a cost of $3.3 million that covers salary, benefits and personal fire equipment.
Twenty-one are firefighting positions. The remaining are for administrative support that span assisting rural firefighting crews and combatting the large, complex fires, that are becoming more common in Alaska, said Tim Mowry, spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Forestry Wildland Fire and Aviation Program.
“For example, one position would be for GIS analyst to help map fires and develop better situational awareness,” he said.
The plan is to grow firefighting and support personnel, extend “funded months” for current positions, and add health care coverage for seasonal firefighters.
“Some funding would be used to extend 46 seasonal positions to better reflect the Alaskan fire season. These extensions will help address the fact that Alaska is experiencing longer fire seasons due to climate change," Mowry said.
"Alaska’s fire seasons are starting earlier in the spring and lasting longer into the fall,” Mowry said.
The request includes two new replacement trucks for each the Division of Forestry’s three agency fire crews. “When crew vehicles are out of service, it delays initial attack response by our crews and endangers the public we are trying to protect,” Mowry said.
Another 30 full-time firefighting positions would be added in the second year of the governor’s plan, in fiscal year 2024, which is not addressed in the current funding request.
Interior lawmakers express support
“There is no reason not to be prepared for the fires we will continue to see,” said Republican Rep. Mike Cronk, a subcommittee member.
“There are many positions in the fire sector that are part-time and this gives these employees the opportunity to have full-time jobs as we build our own firefighting personnel in Alaska,” Cronk said.
Officials from the Department of Natural Resources noted that as Alaska’s dry summer season lengthens, there is a greater need to protect lives, homes and property from wildfires in Alaska.
When Alaska’s fire season ends, many of the workers travel to the Lower 48 to assist in firefighting efforts. The state is reimbursed for the costs, and Alaska’s force gets more on-the-job training, lawmakers were told.
“With climate change lengthening and increasing our fire season here in Alaska, it’s good to have our own Alaskan contingent of wildland firefighters year round,” said Rep. Grier Hopkins, a Fairbanks Democrat.
“I’ll be making sure there is sustainable funding for these increased positions, especially with an expected doubling of these positions next year,” he said.
Hopkins has asked for more information on how many firefighters will be assigned to specific regions, including the Interior. “We need them in the Interior, which is also an excellent transportation hub to much of the state’s lands,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins noted the fire prevention funding measure he led after the Shovel Creek Fire in 2019. On Monday, he lauded the benefits of the combined funding for fire protection.
Focus on wildland firefighting training
In addition to adding more personnel, the Dunleavy administration plans to invest $500,000 in fiscal year 2023 to re-open the state’s wildland firefighter academy, which offers basic and advanced course work. The academy rotates to different locations based on need.
The firefighter academy is a workforce development program that builds firefighting capacity and advances jobs and education in rural areas, Mowry said.
“The Basic Wildland Firefighting Academy will be held in at least two locations annually in the western and eastern parts of the state (for example, Glennallen, Tok, Delta, and McGrath), to provide training and employment opportunities in rural communities,” Mowry said.
Hopkins noted that the entire state has experienced a growing number of wildfires in the last decade, as have many other parts of the nation.
“With climate change creating more erratic precipitation and longer and longer fire seasons, we need a robust fire suppression and prevention team to protect Alaskan lives and property,” Hopkins said.