Local ranger puts out Alaskan fires

Ian Kerr is seen in one of the helicopters used to fight Alaskan forest fires. (Photo courtesy of Ian Kerr)

BLEECKER — Rescuing lost hikers from the Adirondack Mountains is not out of the ordinary for a New York state forest ranger, and for Ranger Ian Kerr, neither is fighting fires in places like California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and most recently, an unlikely place, Alaska.

Kerr, who watches over the towns of Wells, Benson and Hope, the Silver Lakes, Siamese Ponds Wilderness, Shaker Mountain, and the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, said when he got the call to go to Alaska, he was ready for the challenge.

“I was sent out as a helicopter manager in charge of an initial attack Helitack crew based out of Delta Junction Alaska, which is about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, where I was for almost three weeks,” said Kerr.

Kerr said he and his team of six others from all over the country, worked 16 hour days without a day off for three weeks. He served as the person in charge of a type medium helicopter, a Bell 212.

“We flew aerial detection flights after each lightning storm and some storms produced more than 22,000 strikes in a single day. If we found a lightning strike fire we’d load the helicopter up with our initial attack team and fly out and fight it, sometimes using hand tools and other times using the Bambi bucket on the helicopter to do water drops of 260 gallons at a time,” said Kerr.

The mission of the crew was to assist in fighting fires that are in part due to the unusually hot temperatures that Alaska has been facing this summer. The crew, Kerr said, consisted of local Alaskan Helitack guys, Las Vegas, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho, with Kerr being the only one from New York. He said they were assigned to work fires that were massive in acreage.

“We also were assigned to the Rainbow 2 fire which is about 19,000 acres in size. We would fly people in to the fire to fight it, fly people out for medical emergencies, we had two, hook up long lines with cargo nets to bring supplies in to them, attach the bucket and drop water on the advancing fire, towards a local community and do aerial reconnaissance and mapping. This was all for the incident commander and his team to get better situation awareness on the fire,” said Kerr.

The helicopter manager, explains Kerr, is the one that sits in the co-pilot seat using radios to talk to other aircraft and people on the ground for coordination so the pilot can focus on flying. Kerr said he is in charge of the helicopter and crew, providing safety briefings, schedules, training, and the size up of a new fire, and the incident commander of the smaller fires, in addition to communicating with dispatch about what he sees, checks in for flight following, and observers his surroundings to the pilot of aerial hazards.

“As the fire grew in size I worked as the Helibase manager. At one point I had two Bell 212 helicopters, two Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters, a Type 1 Sikorsky helicopter, four water bomber airplanes and an air attack plane assigned to me to try to keep the fire under control,” said Kerr.

Becoming a forest ranger in 2004 was something Kerr, who grew up in Greenwich, said he felt was in his blood thanks to the admiration he had for his grandfather.

“The reason I chose this career is because my grandfather was a forest ranger back in the 40s. I remember being little and him giving me one of his patches and I’d play out in the woods pretending to be one of them,” Kerr said. “I grew up spending a lot of time with him and got to hear all stories about saving and rescuing people, fighting forest fires, protecting the states natural resources and being a member of the community. I always loved it and it set my career path early to become a ranger.”

Before his work as a ranger, Kerr worked with the U.S. Forest Service living in Colorado, where he worked with Hotshot, Helitack, and engine crews fighting forest fires all around the United States.

“I did this for a few years until I got the call to enter the Academy to be a New York state forest ranger in 2004. After I graduated the academy I spent a few years working on Long Island and then to Delaware County, and finally to my new home here in Fulton and Hamilton counties,” said Kerr, who currently lives in Bleecker.

Kerr said as of right now, locally they have an academy expected to graduate sometime in December. Kerr said these new rangers will undergo what he describes as a lifetime of training.

“We have a very unique job. Not only does the forest ranger find, save and rescue people, we fight forest fires and are in charge of defending the states natural resources through education and enforcement as police officers. So needless to say, as a small force that is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, we are constantly busy and to keep up with our training so the ranger can effectively mitigate the next crisis is an ongoing battle. But you can always count on us being there,” said Kerr.

Missions like the one in Alaska are something that Kerr gets called to do on average once a year. He said they are an invaluable resource for rangers, adding that bringing back the knowledge he takes away from each individual experience makes it all the more beneficial.

“Overall, it was a great experience. I was able to bring my knowledge and expertise to Alaska and help them out in a time of need. And at the same time gain a lot from the program that I can bring back to our department and State to help us out back here,” said Kerr.

By Patricia Older

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