by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday.
The air was thick with wartime. One day brought an unsettling rim-shot rhythm of artillery fire, punctuating the otherwise serene surroundings. On another, the percussive rotors of Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters supplied the soundtrack to an attack from above. And later, nagged by mosquitoes, blistered and bundled against the dankness of their leaky tents, the troops waited for marching orders.
No deployment to a far-off jungle or desert, this, but a literal firefight in the adverse heart of America’s "Last Frontier."
For three weeks in July, two graduates of Pennsylvania College of Technology’s forest technology major – Samuel J. Raisch, ’10, and Angela M. Poleto, ’11 – were among six Tiadaghton State Forest specialists (and 40 Pennsylvanians overall) sent to Alaska to battle the stubborn Stuart Creek 2 wildfire. It was their first assignment with an out-of-state crew; indeed, it was the first time in its 40-year history that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources fire-suppression program sent a crew that far from home.
"I helped build a dam, built two helicopter pads, carried large hose uphill forever. It’s not for the faint of heart."
The blaze was sparked in mid-June during weapons training at the Eielson Air Force Base and, fueled by winds swooping across the crunch of a too-dry countryside, was only 5-percent contained by the time Pennsylvania reinforcements landed after a 4,100-mile flight from Harrisburg.
"When we arrived on the military base, before we even dropped our bags, we were briefed by the Army on unexploded ordnance,"Raisch said. "The third day before our last day there (July 19), we were fighting fire on a spur ridge off the military-base road, and we heard this ’Pop! Pop! Pop!’ sound. It was live ammo that was going off due to the intense heat. Sometimes, whole clips would go off, which was pretty disturbing."
The explosions continued, he said, so the crew was pulled off the fire for about an hour until no more "gunshots"were heard.
Raisch and Poleto were on separate details during their Alaskan adventure, but their goal was the same: keep the fire from spreading westward to the base and protect dangerously close towns like Moose Creek and Two Rivers.
As excited as the forest technicians were to be assigned – the seasonally employed Poleto responded, "Are you kidding me?!?"when she got the nod during the skeleton staffing of a Fourth of July weekend in the district – their call-up came shortly after the somber news that 19 "Hot Shot"firefighters died battling a blaze in Arizona.
"My mom was pretty upset about that, and it didn’t help that my phone went dead out in the field,"said Poleto, the only woman on the Pennsylvania team. "Then I had to tell her, ’They’re gonna drop me in the middle of a swamp where no one will be able to reach us.’ She wasn’t too happy about that, either."
As firefighting strategy goes, there wasn’t much difference between Alaska and their home turf to the extreme southeast; it involved a lot of laying hose and mopping up. The difference was where that hose was laid: on remote, unforgiving terrain that went up and up and up for miles and miles and miles.
"On our first day, we hiked a ’dozer line about a mile to a line cut into the forest by the military,"Raisch recalled. "It rained in the morning, so the line was all mud. There was a sphagnum bog we had to cross. It was like walking on a water mattress. I’ve never experienced anything like it."
He and Poleto have vivid memories of the unique conditions of fighting fire in the subarctic: raging flames 4 feet away from the solid ice just beneath the mossy surface. The temperature posed similar extremes and compromised their progress, 40 degrees one day and a sticky 90 the next. Fierce winds and parched conditions helped spread the blaze across 46 square miles, ultimately causing $8 million in damage and taxing the endurance of eight firefighting crews from as many states.
That Raisch and Poleto would be part of such a specialized undertaking does not surprise forestry professor Dennis F. Ringling, who said they epitomize the exemplary students who have come through Penn College’s associate-degree major in his four decades of teaching.
"If I could clone them I would,"he said. "They make my job easier and more rewarding."
Given their wilderness workload, both would have welcomed such duplication.
"Sixty-hour weeks were the norm,"Poleto said. "One day, we actually hiked 20 miles. I helped build a dam, built two helicopter pads, carried large hose uphill forever. It’s not for the faint of heart."
On another morning, Raisch’s team was traveling by bus to a drop-off point when the steep forestry road got the better of the vehicle.
"We carried 25-pound, 100-foot hose lengths up to a quarter-mile down this bulldozer line,"he said. "We had to build a ’hose lay’ that was 3 miles long, plus safety zones. Eventually, we had an all-terrain vehicle bring in the hose and then we installed it because it became too far away to carry by hand."
The abundant exercise was matched with a severe shortage of restfulness, thanks to the 24 hours of daily daylight in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Despite a strenuous schedule, sleep deprivation, climatic onslaught and meals-ready-to-eat, they would do it all again.
Raisch noted the variety of wildlife that crossed their path far from Penn’s Woods, including a large cow moose and indigenous birds such as the ptarmigan.
"It was a nice experience,"added Poleto, particularly noting the snow-capped expanse of Denali National Park that dwarfed her beloved Allegheny foothills back home. "I didn’t get a chance to really enjoy the beautiful scenery because we were fighting fire the whole time, but it was easy enough to look up."
By the time the Pennsylvania crews headed home, the fire was 57-percent contained.
"We put a real dent in it,"Poleto said.
Still, much of the success was at the weary hands of those on the ground. Success that wasn’t lost on the locals, gathered at a lunch counter in the evocatively named town of North Pole.
"On our last day, we stopped at a diner,"Poleto said. "There were 20 of us on the bus, but there was no room inside so we left. Well, the whole place cleared out behind us, and I just thought it was ’cause we hadn’t showered in a week. But this guy yelled, ’Hey, come back. Everyone in there wants to give up their seats for you.’ It was really touching to hear, really nice to know that they were so grateful.
"We saved that town from burning up – all those businesses and homes – and I helped." ■