A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Initiative: Code Red
Organization: Alaska Village Initiatives
City: Anchorage
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Human Services \ Public safety
Grants Received:
2002: $318,066

"I lived in constant fear of fire in the village."

Mission Statement
Alaska Village Initiatives

Organized by and for rural Alaskans, AVI promotes the economic well being of rural Alaskans through economic development assistance, networking, advocacy, and education.

Project Code Red: to provide micro-rural firefighting units to protect 18 remote Alaskan villages.
I'm hanging out in a friend's kitchen with his new roommate, Kristin. She's making herself a birthday cake and we're joking about how her husband, Dave, should be doing this for her instead. They're newlyweds, back in Fairbanks for the summer after a whirlwind wedding and honeymoon two weeks ago. Kristin's husband is a smokejumper, getting some training jumps in on this wet,
spring day.

"I don't care if he has to work," I say. "He shouldn't get a piece of cake. He doesn't deserve it!"

I'm just fooling around, trying to bond with this woman I don't really know, but who shares the same fate I will someday, being the spouse of a smokejumper. I don't know that Dave won't be eating any of Kristin's birthday cake. I don't know that he won't be coming home at all.

That evening I get a call from my boyfriend. He's very late. His voice sounds small and scared.

A photo of equipment provided under the Code Red initiative.Spacer Image "There's been an accident. It's bad."

"What happened?" I want to know immediately. I can't stand the suspense. They're a small, close community, these smokejumpers. I already feel inextricably entwined with their lives.

"It's Dave. He's dead."

Firefighters face accidents and death everyday. Even when we don't buy them the best equipment, the newest technology; even when we quibble about how much overtime they can earn, or if they should have acted sooner or done their job better, we still know they are our heroes.

Code Red supplied firefighters conduct training exercises.Spacer Image Fire is as much a part of Alaska as any of its other natural wonders. Living in the interior means spotting its telltale signs in blackened forests and clusters of morel mushrooms. Every year manmade blazes consume churches and cabins, sheds and homes in tiny villages and sprawling subdivisions alike. In the summer wildfires send smoke into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun just when we think we've put another dark winter behind us.

For two years I lived in Galena, working at the local public radio station. On the wall of the studio was a phone, not to be used for trivial matters. It was a one-way handset, designed to ring when the tiny town's fire alarm went off, summoning volunteers to put out a blaze and save a house or a life. There were several of these hot-lines scattered throughout the town.

Even so, I lived in constant fear of fire in the village. That was not something I'd ever thought of in my old life on the road system. This place was different. There were no huge, honking fire engines racing through the streets, or waiting quietly back at the station to save me from an accidental flame, just a small group of willing volunteers and some basic fire fighting equipment.

Yet, the danger lurked in every creosote-soaked chimney and propane gas stove. Everyone in Galena seemed to know a story about fires that had killed friends and family.

But fire didn't kill Dave. Gravity did. His parachute didn't open when he jumped out of a plane and neither did his reserve. There was nothing to claw at the air, grip the atmosphere and defy the pull of the earth's rotation, nothing to give him a chance to reach the ground at a safe speed.

He wasn't rushing to the scene of a life-threatening fire or breaking into a burning building to rescue a trapped soul. It was a training exercise. He was preparing for the season ahead, readying himself to spend another summer chasing fires, telling himself that he was living the dream. Lucky for us, there are people like Dave who still dream of fighting Alaska's fires, wherever they may burn.

Theresa Bakker has been a producer for stations in the Alaska Public Radio system for more than a decade. She recently made the best career move of her life by quitting her full-time job at KUAC-FM in Fairbanks to take care of her first child. Now she's writing from home for a variety of outlets, including print, television and newsletters.