Hot Saws in the Cold Alaskan Wilderness

Carlos Sinde

Volunteers team up to help protect a fire-prone camp that serves fellow veterans.

In late August of 2021, four Team Rubicon volunteers—Greyshirts—from different parts of the “Lower 48”  boarded planes bound for Anchorage, AK. The four highly skilled sawyers were hand-selected to join fellow Greyshirts from Alaska on a one-of-a-kind operation: helping mitigate against fire for the veterans-serving Battle Dawgs. 

Battle Dawgs is a non-profit organization that uses its Alaskan-based “Camp Battle Dawgs,” along with partnered outpost camps, to provide recovery programs for combat veterans. Their vision: “To empower our nation’s heroes through therapeutic and exciting experiences by harnessing the natural splendor of Alaska’s landscape and the majestic healing power of sled dogs.” Set on 650 acres of the Alaskan wilderness it features a lodge and camp that provides veterans with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and other combat injuries the chance to relax, refocus, and reset in the company of other veterans, for free.  

Team Rubicon Greyshirts conduct route clearance at Camp Battle Dawgs. Photo by Chandler Alford.

That land, surrounded by beetle-kill spruce and located in the heart of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the shadow of Denali, nearly 90-minutes north of Anchorage, is also incredibly susceptible to wildfire threats. Fire resources would have trouble protecting the camp if a wildfire sparked, given its remote location.

For seven days, the cry “hot saw” rang out across Camp Battle Dawgs as Team Rubicon volunteer sawyers fell hundreds of trees to mitigate fire and eliminate overhead canopy threats. Additionally, they worked on 500-foot sloped ridges in wet weather, providing a training opportunity for sawyers to further their skills in challenging landscapes and environmental conditions. 

“Mount Denali is so massive that it generates its own weather, and our sawyers felt all of it over the past week. The sun only began to show its face as our team began to demobilize, but they should all be very thrilled with their work despite the downpours,” said Greyshirt and Incident Commander Chandler Alford. 

The weeklong fire mitigation project created defensible space by reducing fire risk, improving the ability to evacuate camp personnel, sled dogs, and creating access for fire personnel and equipment should it ever be needed. “Our sawyers conquered the last frontier and boast over 700 trees felled, more than 1.5 miles of trail and road cleared, and 40 very proud Battle Dawgs Racing Kennel puppers. Taj, one of the resident dogs, was sad to see us pack it up,” said Alford.

A Greyshirt works route clearance from a hillside at Camp Battle Dawgs. Photo by Chandler Alford.

“It was a pleasure to go up to such a remote location to help out someone who has so much to give to our veterans,” said Team Rubicon Sawyer and Incident Management Team Member Jennifer Nieder. “To watch a small group of Team Rubicon sawyers who didn’t know each other very well but came together and cut down an incredible amount of trees in such a short time was indescribable. I’m so proud of the work done and the relationship fostered with Camp Battle Dawgs.”

At the end of the mitigation operation, Battled Dawgs Founder and CEO Rick Cassillo was at a loss for words. But then, he recovered. “Huge shout out to Team Rubicon! An awesome group of volunteers came out to the camp … The mission was fire prevention and making our trails safe for warriors attending our camps,” said Cassillo. “They cut over 700 trees and busted their tails off, working in the pouring rain. I cannot say enough about this organization, always professional and always willing to go the extra mile for you. We have a long way to go with all the beetle kill trees, but they put a good dent in it for us. From everyone at Battle Dawgs, we say thank you!”

The experience left a lasting impression on all those who had the privilege of participating. The only remaining question: “When do we go back?”

Greyshirts at Camp Battle Dawgs. Photo by Chandler Alford.
Read More Stories