The Value of CERT

Anyone having read much of this blog will recognize I’ve become a champion of volunteering since I retired in the 2000’s and my joy in volunteering has paid many dividends across the years.  From the satisfaction of working with elderly dementia victims to the heart-felt delight in fostering larger/older rescue canines I always get so much more out of volunteering than I put in.  But volunteering has also served as a means to meet people and develop social networking with locals of a similar mindset.  And it sure seems there’s always worthy causes out there seeking volunteers to help fulfill their goals.

So it is I find myself entering into yet another volunteering effort; one which has already introduced me to many new local folks and promises to be one of the most, if not the most, fulfilling of all my volunteering efforts to date.  On March 17, 2019 ten local people, of which I was one, completed our CERT basic training and were awarded our graduation certificates.  For those of you uncertain regarding the nature of CERT let me explain.  CERT is an acronym for Community Emergency Response Team and is a FEMA created program by which teams of volunteers across the United States undergo varying levels of training and are prepared to function when activated as support to first responders in the event of man-made or natural disasters.  It is important to recognize that while CERT members have varying levels of expertise in basic medical treatment, light search and rescue, preparedness, fire safety, disaster psychology and terrorism we are not EMTs or first responders unless our members were so trained before they joined the CERT effort.  However, if requested by first responders we can act as support for these functions.  In the event a CERT team is onsite first – a very real possibility in rural Alaska – we are capable of basic medical care (i.e. stopping severe bleeding, clearing/opening airways and recognizing/mitigating shock) and simple triage.  We can also assist trapped victims and evaluate disaster situations. 

But our real goal in such situations is to gather as much information as possible regarding the event and the ‘fallout’ so we can quickly and accurately share this information with first responders once they arrive on scene.  However, CERT can do so much more for our communities. Our members have access to a myriad of training courses through which skills like crowd management, traffic direction, radio communication and similar can be developed.  We all embrace the concept that the foundation of CERT is ‘neighbors helping neighbors’ and we will always try to ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the least amount of time’.  In order to reach levels of proficiency we have monthly meetings and schedule training sessions involving our team and sometimes in coordination with other CERT operations in the general area.  Of interest to this immediate area; the CERT function should mesh very well with the increase in neighborhood watch programs.

In order to fulfill these responsibilities team members need some basic equipment such as ID vests, backpacks, hard hats, safety goggles, gloves, elemental medical supplies, flashlights and similar.  While FEMA offers support to CERT via training opportunities they do not offer financial support.  For the most part neither does the federal or state government.  Therefore, most CERT operations must look to local businesses and community organizations to help defray the costs of equipping a CERT function.  This means we need to be aware of potential grants and be able to submit requests for monies as well as insure the local economies and community functions are aware of our needs.  As you can imagine there is nothing really low cost when purchasing basic medical supplies like triangle bandages, tourniquets, tweezers, scissors, hot/cold compresses, non-latex exam gloves, anti-bacterial wipes and similar.  Nor are other required items such as hard hats, goggles, work gloves, flashlights, back packs and the like.  Many of these supplies will, hopefully, never be used but in the event they are needed they could prove lifesaving.

In the end CERT can be seen as a kind of local community insurance; while it may cost a bit from time to time if and when it is needed it can be almost irreplaceable.  It is important to remember CERT members are all volunteers who have given and continue to give of their time to train and be ready for what most of us would consider ‘the unthinkable’.  We can form a community core of local people who stand ready to assist and support their fellow neighbors during difficult times.  Living in the Talkeetna area has really brought home just how vulnerable we are and how much on our own we could become in the event of a major disaster.  The magnitude 7.2 earthquake on November 30, 2018 helped me understand how valuable a CERT function could be as the only road between this area and the lower valley (Wasilla-Palmer and Anchorage) is the Parks Highway (AK 3) and it was closed for a time.  It has also been closed in June of 2015 during the Sockeye wildfire in the Willow area.  If a major earthquake or wildfire severed the Parks Highway at, say, Mile 96 Talkeetna and the surrounding areas would have no access to the lower valley and their support functions.  In this case it would be just a handful of local firefighters and EMTs available to deal with the aftermath of such an event and if there is widespread damage and casualties they would be quickly overwhelmed.  Under these circumstances a CERT presence could function as an ‘expertise/first responder’ multiplier and help the first responders assist so many more people in need.  Although we hope we are never called upon to assist in a disaster situation we stand ready to assist our neighbors in their time of need and work closely with our wonderful first responders to ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time’.

Neighbors helping neighbors

Rain and Responsibility

The past couple of evenings I’ve been able to lie awake in my bed and listen to the sound of rain tapping on the metal roof. I’ve always loved this sound but I really enjoy it now because of the metal roof; it truly brings out the sometimes steady and other times not so steady drum of the rain drops. Given the dearth of precipitation this past year the soothing sound of rain drops striking the roof are truly appreciated. But there is even more to love about this sound as it signals an easing of the drought conditions in this area and is assisting the firefighters in their heroic efforts to control the wildfires of Alaska. Although it truly took a while Mother Nature has finally seen fit to bathe this area in some much needed moisture!

Across the past two days I’ve reported 0.94” of rain to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) and while July is the third wettest month of the year in Talkeetna we now have 2.41” of precipitation. Given we’re just 18 days into the month and showing 2.41” we’re 67% of the way to the normal rainfall total with 13 days remaining so with a bit of luck we might make the average rainfall total for July. If this happens it will be the first month in 2015 that we’ve reached or exceeded the monthly rainfall amount.

Sadly this is a bit late for the victims of the fires in June and early July and comes on the heels of more information released about the inexcusable stupidity and utter disregard for safety displayed by the perpetrator of the Sockeye Fire, one Greg Imig, along with Amy Dewitt whom both live in Anchorage. No, they have yet to be arraigned but Imig reportedly confessed to burning trash on that fateful Sunday morning which quickly escaped his control and began what would become the Sockeye Fire. The couple claimed they called 911 when the fire was already out of containment but they gave no location or their names. In addition, they apparently left in huge hurry leaving a chainsaw, gas cans and jack pads for a motorhome behind. Spent fireworks were found at the scene but they are not believed to be the primary source of the fire.

But there is more to this story that provides damning evidence regarding the utter negligence of this duo. Imig was apparently an on-air meteorologist at one time; given the conditions that Sunday morning any rational person would have recognized the utter stupidity of having open fires but a meteorologist should most definitely have known better. There were Red Flag warnings all over the state and any sensible person would have realized the immediate danger of any open flames. Yet this individual decided to ignore common sense and all the warning and burn open brush piles..?!?! Because of this pair’s rank idiocy 55 dwellings were destroyed, many more damaged, an uncounted number of animals threatened and some apparently killed, hundreds of acres of boreal forest incinerated, multiple forced evacuations were implemented and hundreds of firefighters risked their lives spending days fighting a completely unnecessary fire.

Because we are a country of laws, or were before the recent administrations decided they know better than our founders, this must be allowed to play out in our court system. Somehow I have a feeling the real pain for these incomprehensibly stupid people will come in the form of the soon to be filed civil actions. This is how our system works and we need to allow it to take over and proceed. Assuming this pair is to blame, and with Imig’s confession of guilt it seems a given, they should feel the full weight of the legal judgments against them.

All of us wonder why someone would undertake such dangerous actions in the wake of so many warnings; it just seems incomprehensible. Sadly, I fear this is yet another example of the PC driven solipsism that seems to be sweeping the world. So many people are so powerfully inculcated to just live within their own heads and serve only their own interests and needs; we’re becoming a culture that almost refuses to look outside ourselves. In such a scenario if one wanted to ‘enjoy’ burning trash and debris then just do it; such individuals never even consider the potential consequences of their actions except as it might affect themselves. Perhaps if our numbers were just tiny fractions of what they are currently we could get by with such a mindset but this is not the case. Human beings tend to live in groups and as such it becomes necessary to not just think about one’s own needs but to think also about the good of the group. Yes, this does require more effort, at least until one trains one’s self to automatically figure the group’s needs and safety into one’s mental calculus, but it is necessary for people to exist in close proximity and especially in large numbers. Yet paradoxically, as we continue to increase our numbers, a large portion of us put ourselves ahead of all others and continue to be focused upon just our own wants and desires. This trend is not something that is wise yet somehow we have generations of folks who follow its path; often to the detriment of their fellow human beings.

Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point of sorts when we must all sit back, take a deep breath and look into ourselves with as much objectivity as possible and ask; “Am I really concerned about the needs and safety of my fellow human beings?” After all, in the end we are all the same and in this together. Personally I’ve found I have no choice but to accept assistance from others and this only increases as we age. Maybe it is time to really evaluate just how much empathy we have for our fellow human beings? Living in Alaska one of the things I truly admire is what I call ‘the fierce sense of freedom and independence’ so pre-eminent in so many of the people. But along with this comes the undeniable acceptance that at times we all need a hand. Alaskans in general manage to balance this so very well; we cherish our independence and freedoms but we are also among the first to offer assistance to those truly in need. In this sense the lower48 and, indeed, the rest of the world could learn a bit from those of us who call ‘The Great Land’ our home.

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

My First Look At The Willow Area

My final OT session was yesterday (Thursday, June 25th) and so I had reason to make the 64 mile drive south down the Parks Highway to Wasilla; in so doing I drove through the Willow area. It occurred to me I’ve never actually seen an area recently burned by a wildfire and so I was basically clueless as to what I would see. Much to my surprise it was actually rather limited in scope but then this was only what  I could view from the highway as I had no intention of wandering around the area. I began to see burned areas perhaps four miles north of Willow and recognized the destruction was extremely haphazard in nature; in some areas wide swaths of forest were burned but in others just pockets of forest and grassy areas were blackened with other areas immediately adjacent untouched. I also witnessed a couple of apparently intact dwellings surrounded by blackened forest; this bore testimony to the valor and skill of the hero firefighters and possibly some die-hard locals.The air was just a bit hazy but I believe this was due to the slowly breaking down temperature inversion we’ve experienced across this week but the instantly recognizable smell of ‘wildfire’ was everywhere. Along with the smell were numerous signs thanking the firefighters; in addition there were official signs designating command centers, a heli-pad, and marshaling points. I also did see a few fire vehicles off the road in burned areas. The main town of Willow appeared to be untouched by the fire but was mostly surrounded by burned areas especially to the north and east. While driving through Willow I tried to imagine how it would have appeared with smoke and active fire all around the outskirts; it would have been very frightening!

I must admit that I had expected to see more damage given all the reports and aerial coverage but was very pleased to see a relative dearth of destroyed buildings. This is not to minimize the destruction wrought by the Sockeye Fire; it was very costly and only because of the heroic actions of the firefighters and immediate action on the part of the Mat-Su Borough in getting evacuation plans functioning were no lives lost. Even so it was a debilitating fire and something no one would want to experience if given a choice. It is up to we Alaskans to insure our sisters and brothers receive all the assistance they require to put their lives back together. While heartbreaking to lose one’s home and possessions to such an event in the end it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been especially as Mother Nature did not cooperate. In the final analysis possessions are just ‘things’ but life is special and also irreplaceable.

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway


Just When We Don’t Need Hot, Windy and Dry Conditions…

Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.

The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.

Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!!  The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car.  Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people.  Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire.  Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access.  Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve's Willow home

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home

Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives.  Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord.  Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

The Double Edged Sword of Warm and Dry

Spring ‘sprung’ about two to three weeks early across most of Alaska and with it has come uncharacteristically warm and dry conditions. Many of the locals love the warmth – across the past three days Talkeetna has seen highs running +5 F to +10 F above normal – and are particularly enamored of the lack of mud so common during the spring and break up periods. Indeed, I noticed that across the past couple of weeks driving just 25 mph up and down East Barge Drive produces a dust cloud. In the past such conditions have not appeared until the middle of May if not a bit later. Of course the warmth is just a continuation of the above normal temperature regime Alaska has experienced since the summer of 2013 but now the lack of moisture is becoming a trend as well. As with so much in life, in general, and with Alaskan life in particular this is indeed a double edged sword. 

I’ve enjoyed the drought conditions this spring mainly because my two dogs – Anana and Qanuk – are not dragging as much mud and glacial flour based dust into the house. This is a real plus as in previous springs and falls they are often relegated to the mud room for hours after a walk in the hope a bit of the aforementioned detritus might remain on the floor as versed with being carried into the house in general and into my bed in particular. They are not fans of this requirement even though their food and water resides in the mud room. In addition the lack of moisture appears to be slowing the appearance of the annual hordes of blood sucking mosquitoes and no Alaskan will quarrel with such fallout from the dry conditions. If we’re really lucky maybe we’ll see relatively low numbers of the blood thirsty little beggars this season..? One can always hope! 

Warmth is something I do not favor but above normal temps have been the rule in Alaska since I relocated in August of 2013. I have been able to leave windows open the last few nights although I have deactivated the Toyo furnace as the early morning lows have been right around the freezing mark.  I do this to allow the house interior to drop into the low to middle fifties such that when the sunshine returns and elevates the outside temps into the low sixties the interior of the house rarely climbs above 62 F during the day. Because I spend the winter months living at 60 F anything above 65 F starts to feel warm to me; sadly I am all too aware I will once again have to acclimate to 70 F temps as the season unfolds. One negative I noticed about leaving the windows open for multiple days and nights; this morning I awoke to hear two of my interior fire alarms chirping because the relative cold had caused the battery voltage to drop too much. Still and all it has been a boon to be able to open windows and allow the warm and dry outside air to circulate freely throughout my place. 

However, the warmth – especially when coupled to the drought conditions – does have some very potentially negative aspects of which wildfires are probably the most ominous. It seems strange to me that this area could be in a drought when there remain so many lakes, rivers and streams but given this past winter’s snow pack was just 22% of normal and that follows a snow pack of just 30% of normal across the winter of 2013 to 2014 coupled with just 33% of normal precipitation in March and only 20% of average precipitation in April it is no surprise. Sadly we are primed for a bad wildfire season which is based in below normal precipitation in this area across the last year and a half and the well above normal air temps which often foster below normal humidity levels. While most of the locals are cognizant of this potential many of the tourists are not and it takes just one careless camp fire or one smoker flicking a butt from a moving vehicle (why do so many smokers consider the world to be their personal ashtray..?!?!) to ignite a wildfire. By this point the local roadside growth should be greening up but as of yesterday the sides of the Spur remain brown and very dry. 

I have often wondered about this immediate area should a wildfire take hold; the village and most of the outlying areas have just one road to get the local populace out of the area – the Spur. And it runs only from the village south to the Parks Highway (aka AK 3); hence it has just one outlet. Should a fire take hold close to the ‘Y’ – our term for the intersection between the Parks and the Spur – many of us could find ourselves cut off from road access to the Parks and the outside world. Sure, we could walk or use ATVs to make the relatively short trek west to the Parks but that would mean taking only the clothes on our backs and our four legged companions. Needless to say this would not be a good situation but it is something all of us need to keep in mind. All the more reason to stay aware of Red Flag Warnings and be vigilant when burning garbage in our burn barrels as it is much easier to prevent a wildfire than have to fight one. 

So despite all the pluses this warm and dry weather brings to us it also bears the seeds of potential destruction and, as such, is indeed a double edged sword…

Smoke And Questions…

Across the past four days I’ve been reminded once again of some of the prices one pays for living in this majestic state; this time said ‘price’ is in the form of the residue from wildfires.  Last Thursday I made my every other week drive into Palmer to pick up donated food stuffs for the Upper Susitna Valley Food Pantry at which I’m a volunteer; just south of Willow (maybe 35 miles south of Talkeetna) I noticed the Talkeetna Mountains were shrouded in what appeared to be fog.  Within another five miles I knew this was not fog as I could smell the smoke from wildfires.  I knew there were two blazes burning in the Kenai (the Funny River fire and the Tyonek fire) but I was unaware the smoke from these fires had managed to make it so far to the northeast.  By the time I arrived at the warehouse in Palmer visibility was down to less than a mile and the acrid smell of wildfire was everywhere.  By the time I finished getting my own donations and assisting others with their loads my eyes felt like they’d been sandblasted; thankfully I keep Visine in my car so I could mitigate the effects of the smokey air.  It was a shock to realize I couldn’t see the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains normally so prominent in this small town just north of Anchorage; as I tuned in local radio stations I heard of the air quality warnings for the entire Anchorage Bowl.  NWS was advising people remain indoors and if outside not to indulge in any strenuous activities.   As I began my 70 mile drive north to the Pantry and home I couldn’t help but notice the thick, acrid smoke which was even blotting out the sun.  And this started me thinking…

I wondered about our four brave fallen heroes from the Benghazi mission:  Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty.  I wondered if the last thing they saw as they fought for their lives and prayed for the assistance that inexcusably would never arrive was thick, acrid smoke.  I wondered if Woods and Doherty’s eyes burned with the same gritty, roughness that my own did while they heroically held off a hugely superior force for many hours.  And I hoped and prayed that none of them realized that they struggled in vain, that politics and ineptitude were coming together to ensure there would be no rescue that dark, fiery night in Benghazi.

It’s now been almost two full years yet ‘We the People’ still have no answers regarding crucial questions in this outright attack upon America.  There have been no arrests and although our lame-stream media has been able to interview the supposed perpetrators in local cafes we still do not know where our Commander In Chief was that evening or what exactly happened during those first four dreadful hours.  We do not know how the administration initially responded to this horrific news.  We do know the symbol of America in Libya, our ambassador, was slain along with another state department employee and two heroic ex-SEALs working as protective officers.  We know they begged for assistance for hours while they fought against numerically superior numbers armed with larger and more diverse weaponry.  And we know that ultimately they were abandoned and allowed to die at the hands of their aggressors.

Getting all the facts after such an event should supersede any political partisanship; there should be no question we should know the truth within a few months time and there is no question we should have left no stone unturned and no avenue untraveled to bring the perpetrators to justice.  Yet here we are, twenty months from this cowardly attack upon our country, and we have few answers and we have brought no one to justice.  Instead partisan squabbling has turned the deaths of these four proud and brave Americans into a media sideshow featuring bellicose politicians from both parties posturing for the cameras and working to get their faces and their voices on TV.  And still we do not know the real truth.  Is this what our great country has devolved into..?  And maybe more importantly are ‘We the People’ okay with brushing this horrific event under the rug especially as it has the stench of political maneuvering to cover up the truth as well as putting one man’s, and one party’s, ‘needs’ ahead of the country’s?

Maybe we are okay with just ignoring the need to find out the truth behind what transpired within our government on that sad September 11th; maybe we’d rather just tune this out while we celebrate a day off work, eat barbecue and watch baseball.  And maybe we will be okay when a leading figure in this scandal, someone whom was at the helm of the State Department that dark evening, runs for President in a couple of years.  I do not know how the American people would answer these questions but I do know something; as sure as I can once again smell smoke on this Memorial Day morning if we continue down the path we currently tread we’re doomed to become a third-rate power on the world stage bereft of dignity and honor.