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The job of wildland firefighter in Alaska has outgrown its state classification

Trevor Fulton
OPINION: Alaska should do right by its wildland firefighters and give them a job classification that better reflects their responsibilities as first responders.
Alaska Fire Service photo

With winter just around the corner, it’s difficult to imagine that just a few short weeks ago Alaska was in the midst of a busy and challenging fire season.

Record-setting temperatures and unseasonably dry weather resulted in several large, high-profile fires in populated areas of in the Interior this year. The close proximity of these fires to populated areas led to higher suppression costs and greater media attention than usual. Hundreds of smaller fires were also caught and suppressed throughout the state thanks to the quick work of local initial attack firefighters. Overshadowing it all was the tragic loss of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, who perished in late June while working on a raging wildland fire near Prescott, Ariz.

It took the coordinated work of hundreds of state firefighters to contain and control these fires. If you saw these men and women in action this summer, which, because of widespread fires and intense media coverage, many people did, then you know the work they do is hazardous, physically demanding, and highly specialized.  If you saw them in action, you might find it peculiar that the State of Alaska classifies them as clerical workers.

All 11,000 state job titles fall into one of four broad categories: clerical, professional, skilled craft or first responder. Under this system, wildland firefighters are classified as clerical workers -- not, as one might assume, first responders.

According to definitions used in the official State Classification Plan, clerical workers “process data ... subject to verification” and typically operate “in a supportive role.” First responders, on the other hand, provide “for the safety and security of the public and protection from destructive forces” and perform work that “requires specialized knowledge and training to enforce laws and respond to situations endangering life or property.”

Which description better fits your image of a highly trained wildland firefighter working to suppress an active fire in your community or patrolling your neighborhood to ensure that people are using safe burning practices?

While it doesn’t make it right, understanding the history behind fire management in Alaska and the changing role of its firefighter forces might help shed some light on this peculiar arrangement.

In the ’70s, when the state first inherited from the federal government the responsibility of protecting millions of acres of land from the threat of wildland fire, state timber workers wore two hard hats: one as timber sale surveyors and tree counters and planters (read: data processors) and another as firefighters. However, since then, a number of factors have led to a gradual division of labor between fire and timber workers, including:

Several tragic fires in the Lower 48 and the resulting national push to professionalize wildland firefighting.

• A growing state population with increased settlement in fire-prone areas.

• Generally more severe fire seasons.

Today, Alaska’s wildland firefighters are timber resource workers in name -- and in job classification -- only.

A look from a budget standpoint might also shed a little light on why the state classifies its wildland firefighters as clerical workers: It’s cheaper. Classifying wildland firefighters as first responders would likely make them eligible for pay and retirement on par with other first responders, including structure firefighters and police.

It’s time for the state to stop cutting corners in this important area of public safety. It’s time to recognize that its wildland firefighters don’t do clerical work or even timber work anymore. They are first responders whose sole responsibility is to prepare for, prevent and suppress the hundreds of fires that strike Alaska every summer -- fires that scar the landscape, threaten private property, negatively impact businesses and tourism and endanger the public.

One of the greatest rewards of being a wildland firefighter is the tremendous support and appreciation the public shows for the work we do. The thank-you notes, hand-drawn posters and billboards, letters to the editor, homemade goodies, handshakes and hugs are all as appreciated as they are sincere.

In the 13 seasons I have fought fires in Alaska, I have never seen a greater show of support for the work we do than I saw this season. But I encourage Alaskans to take that support one step further by contacting the governor and their elected officials in the Legislature and urging them to recognize the important work done by our state wildland firefighters by fairly classifying them as emergency responders.

Trevor Fulton is a wildland firefighter based out of Fairbanks during the summer and a legislative aide in Juneau during the winter.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.