Kristi Bulock’s Wildfire Career Blazes Bright

Respected Alaska Fire Management Officer leaves big shoes to fill

Kristi Bulock 📷 USFWS

Kristi Bulock grew up near Prescott, Arizona, a town that played a major role in the history of the American Southwest. For thousands of years, the Yavapai people farmed, hunted and foraged in the region that surrounds the current city. Prescott is the former capital of the state of Arizona, and was the major civic and commercial center for the central Arizona Territory through the 19th Century. And like much of the Southwest, it knew some wild and wooly times; both Doc Holliday and Virgil Earp lived in the town prior to their participation in the notorious Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone.

Prescott is also notable for something else: wildfire. Major conflagrations ravaged the city several times in the early 20th Century, ultimately compelling municipal leaders to decree reconstruction with brick. Wildfire in the surrounding Granite Creek watershed remains a central fact of life for people living in and around Prescott, and the city has an illustrious fire-fighting tradition, one notable for both heroism and tragedy. In 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting crew associated with the Prescott Fire Department, died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in the west central part of the state.

Kristi was aware of local wildfires growing up, but she seldom accorded them much thought. That changed when she attended Yavapai Community College in northeast Prescott. While pursuing a pre-Med course of study, she enrolled in an EMT class.

“I made some friends with students in the class who were members of the Prescott Hotshot Crew [an elite federal firefighting crew not associated with the Granite Mountain Hotshots]. They told me about the work, and it really planted a seed — I wanted to do what they did.”

That summer, Kristi secured a position with a wildfire engine crew on the Prescott National Forest. She and her crew were dispatched to numerous blazes, and they sometimes found themselves working with the Prescott Hotshots on fireline assignments.

“They told me about some vacancies coming up on the Hotshots, so I applied,” Kristi says. “The Hotshots knew me pretty well by that time, and they gave me a chance. It was a real honor — it usually takes years to work into a Hotshot crew.”

Hotshot crews are given the most challenging and dangerous assignments on large wildfires, and the work is physically strenuous and mentally taxing. But Kristi prospered with the Prescott Hotshots, absorbing — and applying — the skills, techniques and arcana of advanced front-line firefighting. By this point, wildfire response had become more than an interest, more than a seasonal job: it was the foremost passion of her life. And wildfire fighting is not a profession for homebodies; if you want to advance and learn in the field, you have to be willing to move.

“A friend told me I might like it on the Flathead Hotshots in Montana and I applied and was accepted,” she says. “The crew was a little older than the Prescott Hotshots — mostly in their late 20s or 30s, as I was — and that was appealing. And there were more women on the Flathead crew, which also was welcomed. And finally, the country is spectacular. It just took my breath away.”

Kristi spent two enjoyable and educational years with the Flathead Hotshots, “but at a certain point I wanted to move up, I wanted more of a challenge — I wanted to lead. And promotions are hard to come by on Hotshot crews.”

So after a long solo backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, she applied for a position as an engine crew leader on the Kaibab National Forest on the northern rim of the canyon. Much of the north Kaibab is forested with old-growth ponderosa pines, stands which are maintained to a significant degree by prescription fire programs.

“They’re spectacular trees, and ponderosa remains my favorite tree today,” Kristi says. “I can still remember their fragrance, that wonderful aroma. And I learned a lot about using fire as a landscape management tool.”

But though now an engine chief, Kristi was still a seasonal U.S. Forest Service employee. Additional advancement was contingent on attaining permanent status.

“This was 1997, and permanent positions in the Forest Service were very hard to get,” says Kristi. “Then I heard about a Wildland Firefighter Apprentice Program that was held in Region 5 (California). If you completed the course, you were offered a permanent position. So I put my name in the hat.”

Kristi was picked up for the program in 1998. The training consisted of two month-long academies, each a year apart. Students spent three summers in three different disciplines — engine, helitack and hotshot details, for example.

“I worked the summer of 1998 as an assistant on a fuels management crew on the Stanislaus National Forest in California, spent the winter there on an engine crew, spent the following summer in Durango, Colorado, on a helitack crew, worked as a Stanislaus Hotshot, then left the program for a permanent position as an engine supervisor out of Stanley, Idaho, in the Sawtooth National Forest — the most beautiful place in the Lower 48, in my opinion.”

Kristi took the engine supervisor job in 2000 — a big fire year, she recalls. Her crew was assigned initial attack on the Rankin Fire, an intense blaze north of Stanley. While on that fire, she met Alaska Fire Service (AFS) firefighters who had been sent south as part of an Incident Management Team. She and her engine crew were invited to join the team on additional suppression efforts.

“We bumped from fire to fire with that team, and we really bonded with them,” says Kristi. “As a mid-level supervisor I was so impressed with those guys — they were just so good at their work. They told me about a fire specialist program with the AFS that addressed all aspects of the trade — engines, helitack, prescribed fire, incident management — so I applied and was accepted in 2001. I wouldn’t have left Stanley except for an opportunity in Alaska.”

It is axiomatic that things are different in Alaska — and that includes wildfire.

“It’s a steep learning curve, particularly for someone from the Lower 48,” says Kristi. “The Alaska Fire Service is one of the larger agencies, but it’s still pretty small compared to other federal agencies, or even some of the larger state agencies in the Lower 48, so demands and expectations are high.”

kristi bulock observes a post-fire landscape
📷 USFWS/Leah Eskelin

As a consequence, Kristi’s training was both intensive and extensive. She fought fires all over the state, endured a lot of mosquitoes, and ultimately was tapped for a position with the Alaska Incident Management Team — IMTs respond to large complex wildfires and other large non-wildfire emergencies.

“AFS is located on Fort Wainwright, a military base near Fairbanks,” says Kristi. “After a fire assignment I woke up one morning in the barracks and heard radio traffic about the World Trade Center. It had been hit.”

Because Fort Wainwright is a military installation it was shut down immediately against the threat of attack; no one could get in or out. With other people locked “on base”, Kristi helped run the interagency coordination center located at the base. Then the offer came to go to New York as part of an Incident Management Team to help with the response.

“I had EMT training, so I went as a Medical Unit Leader,” Kristi says. “We were flown in on a 30-day assignment.”

It was a month that Kristi still recalls in vivid — and sometimes painful — detail. Her primary duty was on the night shift, tracking people and equipment involved in rescue and recovery.

“I had to maintain a database of everything that was found, including human remains,” she says. “Sometimes we felt like counselors. A lot of the guys from the Fire Department of New York were numb. They liked talking to us, liked hearing about Alaska and what it’s like here. It was traumatic for all of us. And it was also a great honor to serve with those people. Whenever the firefighters found one of their own, they’d line up in a procession, drape the remains with a flag, and take their hats off. They’d play bagpipes as they accompanied the body off the site. On one of last days there they asked me to join in one of those observances. It meant more to me than anything I’ve ever done.”

Kristi went on many other national emergencies as a member of the Incident Management Team; she responded to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan and served as a Situation Unit Leader on numerous large wildfires. In 2003 she took a position with the National Park Service as a wildland fuels technician and helicopter manager for the Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic National Parks and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

“We flew all over those parks monitoring vegetation plots and historic sites for fire protection, and I got to know them intimately,” says Kristi. “That position really deepened my appreciation for the spectacular public lands we have in Alaska.”

Kristi spent the next few years observing the wildfire professional’s imperative of moving around and moving up. She worked as a prescribed fire and fuels management specialist at national parks in New Mexico and pursued the same work for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.

“But I missed Alaska,” she says. “I still had connections with the AK Incident Management Team, and I heard about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opening for a Fire Management Officer at the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. I figured I was qualified at that point — I’d been everything from a ground-pounder to an Incident Management Team member and fuels specialist, so I applied. And I was thrilled when I got the job.”

At that time, Innoko was managed from the small settlement of McGrath. (It is now administered as part of a refuge complex from the town of Galena.) Kristi moved to McGrath to take up her duties and quickly determined she was well-suited for life in a remote Alaskan village.

Flying detection in McGrath, Alaska. 📸USFWS.

“You never locked your doors or took your keys out of your car,” she recalls. “For that matter, you didn’t use your car much — you walked or skied everywhere. There are only about 300 people in town, and I knew virtually everyone. I did a lot of community outreach for the job, and I had tremendous fun working with the kids on fire education — what it takes to monitor wildlands, how fire is an agent of change in boreal forests, and how it can be used to help maintain or enhance ecosystems.”

In 2014, Kristi moved to a Fire Management Officer position for the Kenai and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuges. Her duties still encompassed the Togiak and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuges in southwestern Alaska.

“It’s a different life,” says Kristi. “I was duty stationed at the Kenai Refuge, and Kenai’s on the road system. You have to start locking your car doors again, and can’t leave your keys in the ignition.”

The mission was also different — and extremely challenging. Kristi was charged with overseeing fire policy on 30 million acres of refuge lands with varying degrees of fire risk. The Kenai refuge and surrounding lands have 175 miles of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), zones that include both wildland and developed areas. Because the potential for the loss of life and property expands in proportion to the WUI, Kristi’s purview at Kenai was particularly demanding.

Kristi knew something about the Kenai refuge before transferring there; in 2014, she assisted as a Strategic Planner for the Funny River Fire, an early season blaze in the refuge’s boreal forest that required multiple evacuations from residential and commercial areas.

“I tend to think of the Funny River Fire as something of a game changer,” Kristi says. “It pointed to a shifting climate, shifting environmental conditions and a shifting fire regime — one that potentially involves more risk to the public and greater challenges in meeting the Service’s conservation mission.”

Andy Loranger, the manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, notes Kristi distinguished herself on both the Funny River Fire and her subsequent appointment to Kenai.

📸USFWS.

“She was very well-known and respected in the interagency fire management community due to her vast experience and comprehensive skill set,” Andy says. “She’s also extremely adept at building relationships, and she radiates enthusiasm and positivity. Those qualities make for a very rare and valuable manager. She’s been a huge asset to our staff.”

Kristi had to apply her skills to the utmost during the Swan Lake Fire of 2019, a conflagration that forced Alaska’s wildfire issues — and the implications they had for the boreal and arctic regions generally — into the national consciousness.

Swan Lake wildfire from the air 📷AK DOF/Jay Walker

“Swan Lake involved a long drought and extremely high temperatures and tremendous public impacts,” says Kristi. “It required multiple area closures, and intermittently closed the Sterling Highway. I don’t like to use the word ‘unprecedented,’ but it probably applies here. It wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen, and it had disturbing implications for the future. We hope it’s an anomaly, but that may not be the case.”

Andy Loranger and Kristi briefing Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Bob Wallace, about the 2019 Swan Lake wildfire 📷 USFWS

Swan Lake was also Kristi’s professional coda; she retired from Fish and Wildlife Alaska in April.

“I’ll continue serving on the Incident Management Team, assisting on state and national fires as a Strategic Planner and Planning Section Chief,” she says. “But I’m also a musher, so I hope to spend more time with my dogs. I have seven of them — which isn’t a lot for a dedicated musher, but that’s about all I can handle at the moment. Each dog has its own personality. It’s like having seven rambunctious kids.”

For Andy Loranger — and all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Alaska staffers — Kristi’s retirement is bittersweet. While there’s happiness that she’s capping an illustrious career on a high note, says Andy:

“There’s also real sadness that she’s going. She’s leaving very big shoes to fill.”

2009

Probably just the diversity of the duties. And really, that’s for wildfire in general — not just my job. You wear a lot of different hats.

I appreciate the opportunity to see nature on its own terms. The landscape isn’t highly managed here. You get to see how natural processes — including wildfire — evolve over vast areas. Fire shapes these landscapes. They wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t look the same, without it. It’s a great privilege to witness the ways natural events like large wildfires play out.

Maintaining habitat diversity. I’m worried about systems getting squeezed out by WUI, for example. Also, the changing climate concerns me. We’re seeing pretty fast and profound changes in some habitats. I hope wildlife can adapt, and that we make the right choices.

Dog mushing or playing with my dogs. I enjoy it tremendously. I don’t compete in the major events like the Iditarod — you need to keep a lot of dogs for that, and I only have seven. But I go to the Iditarod, Tustumena 200, and Yukon Quest races and assist at the checkpoints and with the veterinarians.

Playing with dogs. Courtesy of Kristi Bulock.

That you can drive anywhere. Our road access is extremely limited. The reality is that if you want to go somewhere, you usually have to fly, or take a dogsled!

Being out on the Kuskokwim River and watching the Northern Lights. Or flying to Gates of the Arctic National Park to evaluate historic sites. Gates of the Arctic is so remote, so pristine — simply being there was a spectacular experience.

Understand the passion of the people who are attracted to this work. If you appreciate and are committed to conservation, you’re going to find like-minded people here. They’re people who love people, but they’re also people who love the wild, and for all the right reasons.

The lynx. They’re so secretive, and they’re usually unseen. They’re also incredibly well-adapted to Alaska’s landscapes. And I guess I’d have to add wolves. They have an extremely important role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Interview by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service