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Rural Alaskans Depend on Firefighting for Income

July 11, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ It’s peak wildfire season in Alaska, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for some remote villages where jobs are scarce.

″In some villages, firefighting is the single most important source of income in a year,″ said Pete Buist, spokesman for a Fairbanks fire station.

More than 200 wildfires have ravaged a half-million acres of interior Alaska this fire season, which began in late June and could run into September.

″There’s no economy in the villages,″ said Ron Silas, a former firefighter. ″Fires are quick income. It’s cash that supplements hunting and fishing.″

Alaska has more than 70 firefighting crews with 16 members each, most from villages. The firefighters go through at least three days of training to learn such things as how to operate a chain saw, work a water pump and build fire lines.

″Some years, they don’t all get to work. But this year everybody who wants to is working,″ Buist said.

The federal government calls fire crews to work. Those who have been out of work the longest are called first, he said. Crews from outside Alaska are called only when needed.

About 2,500 firefighters from across the United States were on fire lines in Alaska on Tuesday.

″A work crew can earn $2,500 a day or more. They take that money right home to the local economy,″ said Russ Davis, who represents one of several federal firefighting teams flown to Alaska to help with a 41,000-acre fire that threatened the town of Tok, 275 miles northeast of Anchorage.

Firefighters earn $11.43 an hour and work as many as 16 hours a day for up to three weeks at a time, Davis said. Crews are provided sleeping bags and meals at state and federal expense.

Permanent jobs in rural Alaska are scarce, said Frank Starbuck, a fire crew leader from the Inupiat Eskimo village of Selawik, a village of 680 residents just above the Arctic Circle 375 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

″Firefighting is very important to Selawik. Most guys depend on it during the summer,″ Starbuck said.

He led one of two Selawik crews that spent five days this week fighting a blaze at Pedro Dome, about 15 miles north of Fairbanks. The fire charred 900 acres before it was brought under control Monday night.

For many rural Alaskans, fire is a mixed blessing.

″I hate to see everything burn up - the timber and the wildlife. They have their young ones now and I feel bad about that,″ said Molly Galbreath, an Athabaskan Indian from the eastern interior village of Mentasta. ″That’s where we get our food.″

But before the fire, Galbreath, 57, had a hard time finding work. She now earns $9 an hour helping out at the Bureau of Land Management’s fire station in Tok.

″This will really help for the long winter,″ she said.

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