Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge fire crew warmly welcomed in Alaska after epic journey

A group of people stand in a parking lot

Little did a fire crew from Maine know when they were called to a fire in Alaska that their journey would be more like an episode of The Amazing Race than a routine fire mobilization.

 The Type 2 initial attack crew, named MHR#1 for Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, was pulled together by Prescribed Fire Management Specialist John Meister of the refuge in Baring, Maine.  Besides employees from Moosehorn and Rachel Carson national wildlife refuges, crew members included firefighters from the National Park Service and the State of Maine, as well as “AD’s”; qualified firefighters sponsored by these agencies and hired on an as-needed basis.

A group of people stands out in a parking lot on a sunny day with puffy clouds in a blue sky.

Alaska welcoming party, left to right Tracey McDonell, Mitch Ellis, Holly Gaboriault, Polly Wheeler, Ken Slaughter and Doug Alexander. Credit: Jan Passek/USFWS

 On the afternoon of Friday, July 5th, Meister got word that his crew was one of eight 20-person hand crews from the Northeast expected to be in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at noon the next day to board a chartered jet to Alaska. For the next two hours Meister and fire dispatcher Mary Elliott from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on detail at the Northeastern Interagency Coordination Center (NECC) in Maine, scrambled to find transportation for the crew to Harrisburg.

 Finally they found a bus company out of New Hampshire that would drive throughout the night. The crew boarded the bus at 11:00 p.m. Friday evening and breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived in Harrisburg at 10:45 Saturday morning—about an hour to spare before the jet’s scheduled departure.  

 But luck was about to run out for MHR#1. The jet contractor had misrepresented his aircraft’s capacity.

 According to Lauren Hickey, BLM Logistics Coordinator for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, the contractor for the jet “swore they could carry all 8 crews, no problem, but when push came to shove, it turned out that wasn’t true and they could only load 7 of them.  The Fish and Wildlife crew got bumped.”

 Dispatcher Mari Carello-Bigner of the NECC stepped up to book commercial airline tickets for all 20 crew members, who  had to split  into groups on different flights.. “We had people scattered across America for four days,” said Meister, who watched the drama unfold from back home in Maine.

 Moosehorn Refuge’s firefighter Libby Harriman and five others were the first to arrive in Alaska at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday. Her husband, Brandon Harriman, also a firefighter at Moosehorn, arrived with another five at 8:00 that night.

A group of people stand in a parking lot.

We made it! Libby Harriman (holding cup) is all smiles on firm Alaska ground. Behind her is Lynn Wolfe from Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jan Passek/USFWS

 Four more firefighters embarked a plane to Alaska via Denver and another four were initially stranded in Harrisburg waiting for an available flight. The latter group eventually found one and touched down in Alaska on Monday night. Meanwhile, the other group made it to Denver only to have their flight to Alaska cancelled due to mechanical problems. The airline put them up for the night and they finally reached the Alaska Fire Service in the early morning of July 9th.

 Said Hickey in an email to Doug Alexander, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Regional Fire Coordinator,“I encountered the last few arriving crew members at the airport last night and they were very professional . . . and represented Fish and Wildlife well.   Even though it was midnight and pouring rain at the time from a cell that had just moved in, they were thrilled they’d finally made it and were looking forward to their assignment.”

 As chance would have it, when all crew members reunited at the fire base in Alaska on Tuesday morning, Alexander was on site with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Chief of Refuges Mitch Ellis, Deputy Chief Polly Wheeler, and Refuge Supervisors Tracey McDonnell and Holly Gaboriault and Kent Slaughter, Manager of the Alaska Fire Service.

A group of people stands out in a parking lot.

Doug Alexander (center) chats with fellow firefighters. Credit: Jan Passek/USFWS

Alexander and the entourage warmly welcomed the firefighters to Alaska and thanked them for coming to work on the Stuart Creek #2 Fire. 

 “I was not aware these folks had traveled for 36 hours,” said Alexander.  “They looked professional, eager and ready to go.”  Lauren’s note and our opportunity in meeting them are a great credit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

MHR# 1 is working with hot shot firefighters on the southwest side of the 84,000-acre Stuart Creek #2 fire near North Pole, Alaska. They are burning unburned vegetation to keep the fire from spreading and holding the fire line along roads.

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