Local News

Florida firefighter was in Alaska, Oregon

SEBRING - Chances are, you didn't see Florida Forest Service Ranger Kari Sikio in those dramatic newspaper or TV pictures of the fires last month in Delta Junction, Alaska or Tiller, Ore. Sikio, who went north to Alaska on Aug. 12, wasn't standing on the front line with a fire hose. He wasn't even at the hydrant end. He was the guy who issued hoses and pumps and yellow Nomex shirts and green fire-retardant pants and bars of soap and bug spray. "I stay in the base camp, where we store all the firefighting supplies," said Sikio, who works at the Sebring Forestry Station from the fire tower south of Desoto City. When an iconic fire threatens, the U.S. Forest Service sends semi-trailers and smaller trucks filled with equipment and supplies. Sikio was second in command of a nine-man squad on the receiving end of the supply line.
The fire smoldered to life on May 30; winds fanned a breakout on Aug. 7. By Aug. 15, Incident Command Base set up with 250 firefighters from around the nation. "A fire this size typically has 1,000 firefighters on it," Tom Kurth, incident commander, explained to Delta Junction residents on Aug. 12, the Delta Wind newspaper reported. "But our resources are stretched thin with several fires burning in the interior. The Lower 48 is experiencing a heavy fire season and we cannot expect to draw any manpower from them." On Aug. 26, when Alaska Interagency Management Team finally returned command to Alaska Fire Service, what was officially designated the Mississippi Fire burned almost 70,000 acres southeast of Fairbanks. Sikio chose a Florida Fire Service career in the Incident Command System after 20 years as a logistician in the U.S. Army. The ICS controls funds, personnel, facilities, equipment and communications. Wildfires are fought by airplanes and helicopters loaded with water or fire retardants, by firefighters with picks and shovels, and in the case of the Mississippi Fire, with hoses and sprinklers to soak the landscape and preserve historic properties. "Mostly hoses," Sikio said. During the Mississippi Fire, firefighters held the ends of 80-mile long hoses. "It was mainly a pump show." It was Sikio's job to oversee camp crews and account for equipment as it went out. "When it starts coming back off the fire line, we especially don't want to lose the high-value items," Sikio said. Some pumps cost $3,500. Camp crews collect and recondition the cache, place it on pallets and load onto trucks, or in some cases send right back out. "At a pretty high rate of speed," Sikio said. Fans of "Northern Exposure" will recall a moose browsing through the fictional town of Cicely during the 1990 TV show's opening credits. Same thing happened, Sikio said. "When the weather cleared up, we got a really clear view of the mountains," Sikio said. "A bull moose came next to the bivouac area. He was just wandering around." When the Alaska fire was over, Sikio again volunteered, and was sent southeast of Eugene, Ore. The crew protected commercial timber and the Umpqua National Forest for six days. "Kari's training and experience is very specialized and valuable." said FFS spokeswoman Melissa Yunas. The Florida Forest Service sent out 164 firefighters to various western wildfires. Only nine went to Alaska. To be clear though, Sikio volunteered for the rapid deployment unit. His wife Lisa has grown accustomed to him being away from home. "When the state of Florida is not in any fire danger, they give us the opportunity to go and support federal incidents. I enjoy it," Sikio said. "Supporting the firefighters gives me a feeling of satisfaction. Sure, it's not the glorious job like the people you see on the news. But sometimes, someone says, 'Thanks for this bar of soap.' It's one of the necessary and essential parts of the operation... If you don't have support for the firefighters, they're in a bad situation." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828