Inside the Gates: Alaska Organized Militia comes together to respond to wildfires
When it comes to natural disasters and emergencies across the state, there are lesser-known organizations located deep within the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs that play major roles: the Alaska State Defense Force and Alaska Naval Militia.
According to Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead with the Alaska National Guard, the Naval Militia are personnel in the Navy reserves that can be activated to support the state in times of dire need.
"These Naval Militia folks volunteered for the mission, including National Guard," Olmstead said. "So there’s volunteer as in ‘raising your hand to participate’ and then there is volunteer as in ‘unpaid.’ Everyone providing support to this effort raised their hands to participate, and they will all be paid."
The Alaska State Defense Force is most often made up of members who donate their time.
"They do not get paid for drill weekends or annual training," Olmstead said. "They buy most of their own equipment and uniforms. They are only paid when they are put on state active duty, which is the case for the fires."
Spc. Gail Balzer is a member of the Alaska State Defense Force and an Operations Sergeant at the Kenai detachment. Balzer lives with her husband in Sterling but was recently spending her time in Los Angeles helping with other family members.
"I live right outside of Sterling and my community is being directly impacted by this," Balzer said. "My friends, family, people are getting ready to evacuate, my neighbors. So, this is where my heart is, everyone I know and love for the most part is in that area being affected."
Balzer got the call that the defense force was being activated to help with the fires. She bought her own ticket home and one hour later, she was at the airport.
"We are pretty certain this is the first time that all of the Alaska Organized Militia are responding to real-world domestic operations as a team," Olmstead said.
Balzer’s first stop was the McKinley fire. She says she mainly directed traffic to assist the Alaska State Troopers with their fire response.
“We helped step in so that the troopers would be available to go ahead and make rounds to check on homes and stuff. Try to handle any issues without having to worry about roadblocks," Balzer said.
On Tuesday, the militia sent 10 individuals to help with the Swan Lake Fire, lifting the total number of members on-site from 15 to 25. On hand are eight members from the Alaska State Defense Force, eight Alaska Air National Guardsmen, six Alaska Army National Guardsmen and three members from the Naval Militia.
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