Parks Highway fire strengthens community ties

The Parks Highway fire, Alaska, advances as seen from a helicopter on June 8.  The fire has burned more than 114,000 acres of land so far including, two houses, two cabins and several outbuildings. (Photo by Adam Kohley, Alaska Fire Service)

The Parks Highway fire, Alaska, advances as seen from a helicopter on June 8. The fire has burned more than 114,000 acres of land so far including, two houses, two cabins and several outbuildings. (Photo by Adam Kohley, Alaska Fire Service)

Flames pushed by 30 mph winds threatened the small town of Nenana.  Residents evacuated several times, while firefighters concentrated on protecting structures.  Personnel from Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, and the 168th Air Refueling Wing, assisted in traffic control and firefighting efforts. (Photo by Bruce Swain)

Flames pushed by 30 mph winds threatened the small town of Nenana. Residents evacuated several times, while firefighters concentrated on protecting structures. Personnel from Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, and the 168th Air Refueling Wing, assisted in traffic control and firefighting efforts. (Photo by Bruce Swain)

CLEAR AIR FORCE STATION, Alaska -- “Citizen Soldier” is a phrase synonymous with the National Guard.

This term definitely applies to the newest Alaska Air National Guard unit – the 213th Space Warning Squadron at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

A large portion of the personnel working at Clear reside within the communities of Nenana, Anderson and Healy. During the recent Parks Highway fire, Team Clear’s community ties endured and strengthened.

A call came in June 7 to the commander’s office. Fire trucks were rolling to a fire reported off base at a base member’s residence. It was a dry, windy day, and the fire quickly raged out of control consuming acre upon acre of black spruce.

Security forces began assisting Alaska State Troopers by controlling traffic along Parks Highway as the fire threatened to jump the road.

The troopers soon closed the highway from Nenana south to Healy, affecting approximately 35 miles of road and base personnel who lived north of the base. Contingency plans were implemented, and whoever needed it, had a place to stay with the help of services personnel.

After six hours, the highway reopened. Those who had homes north of the base were allowed to go home, while those in the community of Nenana were under a voluntary evacuation – one of many to follow.

The fire continued to rage and threatened the small town of Nenana. Residents were evacuated several times over the next few days while firefighters concentrated on protecting structures. Personnel from Clear and the 168th Air Refueling Wing, an ANG tanker unit that serves as the only artic refueling unit for all of the Pacific Air Forces, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, assisted in traffic control and firefighting efforts. Others checked on the homes of Clear personnel, assisted Nenana community members in any way possible and delivered water to thirsty workers. Two Alaska ANG members took leave to drive fire trucks for the Anderson and Healy Fire Departments.

Firefighters contained the fire approximately one mile south of Nenana. The fire destroyed two houses, two cabins, and several outbuildings with many more structures threatened. No one from the base lost their home; the wind had blown the fire to the northeast, away from any populated areas.

However, meteorologists began to predict a change in wind direction. This change would blow the fire back toward the southwest where black spruce was abundant. The winds would also place the town of Anderson and Clear in the fire’s path.

Firefighters quickly gathered supplies and moved operations to the south. Firefighters and base personnel bull-dozed fire breaks and back burned fuel-rich areas to deny the fire a path to homes and the base, while hoses and portable water tanks were prepositioned around structures.

Installation personnel began to plan for an evacuation.

Planning meetings were held daily to address accountability of personnel, transportation, supplies and escape routes. The planning team made up of active duty, Guard, civilian and contractors planned not only for the evacuation of Clear, but also the Anderson AFB, Alaska, community.

Base personnel inspected, restocked, and made ready to roll mobile command posts. Roadblocks were removed from a seldom used secondary road to allow an escape route for the base and Anderson in the event the highway was cut off. Units gassed up government vehicles ensuring they were ready to go.

A brownish-gray haze blanketed the area as the wind started blowing smoke toward the base. The smell of smoke permeated the air by June 15, and air hazard warnings went into effect.

One morning, personnel awoke to the sound of rain falling. It would take several days of steady rain to completely quench the fire, but the little bit of rain helped dampen potential fuel for the fire and assisted firefighters with fire containment.

Rain continued to fall, and the fire stopped spreading – held at just more than 71,000 acres.

Team Clear remains prepared to fight more fires throughout the summer.

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