UPDATE 8/26/2016 5:45 PM:
A new team is taking the lead on the Soberanes Fire. As of 7 a.m. Friday, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team took command from the California Interagency Incident Management Team.
According to Incident Commander Tom Kurth, the roughly 250-person team plans to continue with present tactics and continue operations to reinforce fire lines on the west and east flanks. He said it’s the Ventana Wilderness that is most concerning.
"It's a very dangerous area to fight fire because the fire has the advantage here of coming over the ridges and we don't have safe places to go," Kurth said.
The 250-member team is made up of incident command, strike team members and services personnel. They arrived earlier this week and have been getting the lay of the land, getting acclimated to the environment and meeting with residents in the Cachagua area.
He and many of his team members have experience battling fires in California, but every fire is different.
"This fire has a propensity to move in this direction which is apparently unusual for previous fire history -- that is, we're moving from a northwest to a southeast,” Kurth explained. “And from what we understand it's generally the opposite flow. So this is a little bit unusual but that's the firefighting environment that we're in. That so-called new norm out there is something we're discovering each and every incident."
Alaska has a diverse terrain ranging from flat, open spaces to forests and rugged mountainous areas -- similarities that should come in handy on the fire lines in Big Sur.
However, there are vast differences in other areas. Fuel types in Alaska tend to be more resistant to flames, whereas California’s native grasses can dry out and quickly spread fires.
Cameron Winfrey, a Wildland Fire Resource Technician, said Alaska has copious amounts of water, whereas California is facing its fifth year of a drought. Getting access to a fire in California is easier because of our roadway system, but that’s not the case in Alaska.
"The access here, you pretty much jump into a truck and drive to it,” Winfrey said. “In Alaska, most of the times it's getting on a helicopter, then an airplane, then a boat, then finally hike a few miles into the fire."
Teams are equipped to camp out for days battling fire, often bringing at least three days’ worth of MRE’s (meals ready to eat). After that, a fresh food box is delivered, usually by air, and crews cook their meals at their makeshift camp, also called “spike camps.”
Even the dangers are different. There isn’t poison oak in Alaska, whereas crews battling the Soberanes Fire have been plagued by it.
"Down here, the snakes and the black widows and every little creature that can do harm to you,” Winfrey said. "In Alaska, everything that can kill you, you can see coming, as far as grizzlies and moose."
And tools which may come in handy in the Last Frontier won’t work on the Soberanes fire lines.
"Around here we use different tools as far as the fuel type because certain tools in Alaska just don't work, and they're just a bent shovel,” Winfrey said. “And if you scrape back the earth you can get mineral soil here. Up there the tundra can be a foot, two feet deep and that's not going to help so you really need to get after it and cut deep to get to actual permafrost."
Despite the differences, these firefighters know what they are doing. 2015 was one of the worst years on record for wildfires in Alaska, burning more than five million acres of land. The worst year on record was 2004, when more than 6.6 million acres of land were scorched.
A change in command for the Soberanes wildfire on the Central Coast, as it enters it sixth week.
The Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team stepped in as the lead agency at 7am this morning, headed by Tom Kurth.
The team from Alaska includes some 60 people from a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to public information officer Pete Buist, who spoke with KION this morning.
The Alaska Interagency Incident Command Team took over from the California Interagency Incident Management Team #3.
Cal Fire resources will still play a role in fighting the fire that began July 22nd with an illegal campfire at Garrapata State Park.
The Soberanes fire is now 91,100 acres and 60% contained. There are 1,413 people fighting the fire on the Central Coast. At one point, more than 5,000 fire personnel were assigned. The containment date is still set for September 30.
"Most fire activity yesterday continued in the interior of the fire with minimal movement along the fire line. Aircraft water drops continued to cool and slow the progress of the fire," according to the press release issued this morning.