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ALASKA FIRE MANAGEMENT: Teaching Alaskans to Fight Alaska Wildfires
Alaska Region, August 4, 2011
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Alaska Wildfire Academy graduate Joricha Thomas.
Alaska Wildfire Academy graduate Joricha Thomas. - Photo Credit: Bud Sexton/Alaska Division of Forestry
John Grafft of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge teaching Alaska Wildfire Academy students about portable water pumps.
John Grafft of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge teaching Alaska Wildfire Academy students about portable water pumps. - Photo Credit: Tony Navarro/U.S. Forest Service
Graduation Ceremonies.
Graduation Ceremonies. - Photo Credit: Maggie Rogers/Alaska Division of Forestry

 During her training at the Alaska Wildfire Academy, Joricha Thomas found herself challenged in ways she hadn’t expected. There were the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, the physical training, the hours in the classroom, and time spent away from her 2-year-old daughter. But Thomas, 20, also surprised herself by rising to the challenge.  

“It was more than I expected, but I learned about not giving up. I wanted to set an example for my daughter,” said Thomas, who lives in the Athabascan village of Nikolai in Alaska’s Interior. “I feel really proud of myself.”
 
Thomas was one of 33 students from across Alaska to graduate June 11 from the Alaska Wildfire Academy in Tok. The academy was established to train Alaskans to meet the need for wildland firefighters in Alaska. It is a cooperative effort of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, the Alaska Department of Labor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Doyon Ltd., Alaska Gateway School District, and the University of Alaska Interior Aleutians Campus. This was the second year for the program, which graduated 40 students last year.
John Grafft a 26 year Alaska firefighter and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service liaison to the Academy helped provide critical leadership and mentoring.
 
 “Most of these young men and women are right out of high school and are looking for their place in the world. We help show them that the respect and self discipline they need to have on a crew apply to the rest of their lives also,” Grafft said.
 During their three weeks of training, the students learned about fire behavior, first aid, aviation, and fire management. In addition, they were taught to use firefighting hand tools, chain saws, and pumps. But Jeff Hermanns, Tok Area Forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said it’s the life lessons that are the foundation of the program.
 
“They are complete strangers and they come together and are sleeping in tents and spending 16 hours a day learning how to function as a crew and a team,” Hermanns said. “We don’t allow visitors. We’re trying to simulate a 21-day fire assignment so that they develop trust in their crew mates.”
 
The students earn nationally recognized wildland fire qualifications and certifications that prepare them for immediate assignment to wildland fires in Alaska at the completion of the program. In fact, 28 of the 33 students who graduated were put on crews and dispatched to fires two days after graduation. The students also earn 10 college-level credits from the University of Alaska Fairbanks- Interior Aleutians campus. The hope is that some of the students will eventually go on to get a two-year degree in fire management. 
 
Joricha Thomas especially liked the training in CPR and first aid and the 10 college credits have her thinking of the future. “I like the medical side of things,” she said. “I might even try college.”


Contact Info: Maureen Clark, (907) 786-3469, Maureen_Clark@fws.gov



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