Wildfire fighters return to find their base in Palmer looted

  Wildfire fighters return to find their base in Palmer looted

18 August 2009

published by www.adn.com 

USA — Daniel Skriloff, an Alaska wildfire fighter, had just come off the line, battling the oppressive heat and smoke of the 12,000-acre Hardluck Creek blaze near Fairbanks, when he got the bad news.

Back at the Palmer-based headquarters for the Pioneer Peak Hotshots, thieves — as part of a storm of theft and destruction — broke into and stole his Subaru Legacy from the gated parking lot.

“It sucks,” said the third-year firefighter, who was back in Palmer dealing with insurance forms on Tuesday. “You name it, they took it.”

The fury touched the headquarters from one end to the other. If it wasn’t nailed down, the thieves used axes and crowbars to remove it. Nothing was too trivial to pass up. Pilot bread and peanut butter, backpacks and tents, moose antlers and iPods. All were loaded into stolen vehicles along with $5,000 fire pumps and $1,000 chain saws.

Nearly every one of the 20-some cars parked in the lot — all belonging to the 40 or so firefighters tackling wildfires up north in the Interior — had been pilfered. Five cars and trucks were stolen. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of fire-fighting equipment was looted.

The assault on the Alaska Forestry building on south Woodworth Loop off Trunk Road was discovered at 11:30 a.m. Monday.

Alaska State Troopers are investigating but as of Tuesday night had made no arrests.

“It is very disappointing. The kids on my crew literally put their lives on the line for the public and to come home to this situation is pretty disheartening,” said crew superintendent Matt Jones.

The firefighters spend about six months a year traveling around Alaska and the rest of the country jumping from fire season to fire season, keeping wildfires from burning homes or at least from burning too many acres. They usually work two-week stints, sometimes putting in 16-hour days on the big blazes.

The Forestry Division’s Fire Management Officer for the Mat-Su Area, Norm McDonald, said while the state’s equipment is insured, the firefighters’ personal gear and vehicles are not.

The thieves broke into their cars, offices and lockers and took their computers, digital cameras, backpacks, climbing gear. Skriloff explained firefighters kept a lot of gear in the cars and at headquarters because they would usually only come back for two days of rest before heading out again. He said he sometimes found it easier to stay at headquarters than to go home to Girdwood.

“It kind of violated our second home,” Jones explained of the scene.

Left behind by the thieves were a loaded-up hot-wired van and a Ford Escort run into a ditch. The bandits had apparently gotten stuck. Firefighters say that the cars didn’t have four-wheel drive, which probably saved them from being stolen.

Investigators took the vehicles to scan for fingerprints.

On Tuesday, about 20 of the 40 firefighters were back in Palmer as scheduled for their two days of rest before heading out again. They said their heads were still spinning and trying to inventory all that was snatched, packed and hauled off the property in what must have been an exhausting moving effort by the burglars. The thieves didn’t leave any nook or cranny unchecked: they even stole perishable food from the refrigerator.

As a final insult, they urinated on firefighters’ personal clothes pulled out from their lockers.

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