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ALSKA EASTERN INTERIOR FIRE PROGRAM: Training Chainsaw Operators for Alaska Refuges
Alaska Region, November 21, 2012
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Perfect weather for the field exercise:  8 inches of snow and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Left to right:  Instructors Brian Haugen and John Graft; Newly certified saw operators Kristin DeGroot, Ryan Mollnow, Dave Bergstrom and Greg Risdahl.
Perfect weather for the field exercise: 8 inches of snow and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Left to right: Instructors Brian Haugen and John Graft; Newly certified saw operators Kristin DeGroot, Ryan Mollnow, Dave Bergstrom and Greg Risdahl. - Photo Credit: USFWS/Peter Butteri
Tetlin Refuge biologist Kristin DeGroot tunes her saw in the Refuge hangar.
Tetlin Refuge biologist Kristin DeGroot tunes her saw in the Refuge hangar. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Tetlin Refuge Manager Ryan Mollnow lines up his gunning sights as he prepares to drop a seven-inch dbh fire-killed black spruce.
Tetlin Refuge Manager Ryan Mollnow lines up his gunning sights as he prepares to drop a seven-inch dbh fire-killed black spruce. - Photo Credit: USFWS

Few would argue with the observation that chainsaws are one of the more hazardous tools available for use in resource management. It is amazing then, that in a work environment where even the simplest, most innocuous tasks often require a written hazard analysis, the Fish and Wildlife Service has until recently had no explicit safety policy regarding the use of chainsaws outside of the fire program. In November of 2010 the National Safety Office, recognizing the potential for injury resulting from this oversight, appended a chapter to the Service Manual, 241 FW 12: Chain Saw Safety. In part, the new chapter identifies minimum training requirements for all Service chainsaw operators.

 

Now that a two year grace period for existing chainsaw users has expired, the implications of this new policy are becoming clear to Region 7 managers. With no training program in place and only a few qualified Service instructors available in the Region, all of them in the fire program, stations will be forced to suspend chainsaw operations until they can find a way to train operators. Recognizing this, the Eastern Interior Fire Program has initiated efforts to provide chainsaw training for non-fire employees in Fairbanks and outlying field stations.

In August of 2011 Assistant Fire Management Officer (AFMO) Brian Haugen and two BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers provided chainsaw training for Kanuti Refuge and National Park Service employees in Bettles. Despite initial concerns about the length and expense of the three day training, all four students who became certified agreed that the course had been worthwhile and that they had learned valuable lessons about the safe use of chainsaws. One participant, Refuge Manager Mike Spindler, said, “l learned some simple things like improving my stance, posture, and grip, that greatly improved my safety, especially when felling a tree, or bucking up numerous logs into firewood lengths.”

The following spring, Brian began organizing a late May training for Fairbanks employees. His efforts were complicated by travel caps, tight budgets, and the time-crunch associated with preparations for the upcoming field season. Scheduling conflicts for students as well as instructors ultimately resulted in the course being cancelled. However, as summer wound down and the grace period expiration date approached, managers at Tetlin Refuge requested a class for five students in Tok. Fire Prevention Technician John Grafft, duty-stationed at Tok, took the lead in coordinating a late October class despite concerns about snow cover and cold weather.

In the last week of October, Fire Management Officer Peter Butteri and AFMO Brian Haugen traveled to Tok to assist John with three days of course instruction and field certification. By the end of the week, four students had been certified as chainsaw operators. A fifth student missed the field day in order to assist with a Refuge moose survey but, thanks to John Grafft, was able to complete his certification two weeks later, after the moose were counted. Once again, students overcame their skepticism and expressed satisfaction with the course content and length. Even Refuge Maintenance Worker (and longtime saw operator) Dave Bergstrom admitted that prior to the class he had never heard of a ‘gunning sight’ on a saw, and that by using the sight he had learned to drop trees with much greater accuracy.

The Eastern Interior fire program is already planning for a 2013 spring chainsaw training session in Fairbanks, and FMO Peter Butteri hopes to be able to facilitate training (including recurrency) for additional field stations in the future. Togiak Deputy Refuge Manager, Tevis Underwood has already recognized the importance of this training. Scheduling conflicts prevented Togiak employees from attending the fall class, but Tevis is planning on sending students to the spring session. AFMO Brian Haugen requests that interested managers and employees start discussing spring training schedules now, so that as many students as possible can be accommodated.

As budgets tighten, inter-program cooperation is essential to maintain capability in Region 7. Haugen Butteri, and Grafft are looking at options for streamlining the chainsaw curriculum, training additional Service instructors, and for opening an intra-agency agreement with BLM that will expedite the use of smokejumper instructors. The Eastern Interior Refuges Fire staff is working to help Region 7 comply with new policy by providing required chainsaw training and certification. More importantly, they are assisting Refuges and other field stations by training employees to work safely and effectively with a chainsaw – a productive but potentially dangerous tool.

Written by: Peter Butteri, Fire Management Officer for Arctic, Kanuti, Tetlin and Yukon Flats Refuges. For more information, contact Peter at peter_butteri@fws.gov or (907) 456-0361.


Contact Info: Joanna Fox, (907) 456-0330, joanna_fox@fws.gov



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