Rachel Dunne Finds Unlikely Path in Alaska

Posted on: Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by Brent Treash
When Rachel Dunne (’04) was a student at E&H, she pretty much set the woods on fire. Lately, she’s been busy putting out fires. This is truly a young woman who knows how to fire up a Liberal Arts degree.

When Rachel Dunne (’04) was a student at E&H, she pretty much set the woods on fire. Lately, she’s been busy putting out fires. This is truly a young woman who knows how to fire up a Liberal Arts degree. 

This is all a corny way of saying that Rachel has been fighting wildland fires in Alaska.

A double major in Public Policy & Community Service and Psychology, Rachel was a top notch student with a heart intent on making a difference. And it comes as no surprise that she is finding such a creative means of making her way in the world.  She wanted to pursue work in the area of disaster relief response after graduate school, but needed job experience.  She spent 10 months in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps doing a lot of work in the Gulf region of the U.S. working on Katrina recovery efforts.  She also got sent to a very small town in Arizona where her team was assigned to assistance with brush clearing to prevent wildfires.  Her superiors suggested she come back after AmeriCorps for a job.

While she only intended to do the job for a year, she stayed for two and a half years honing her skills not only in firefighting and prevention but also in coordinating fire response, GIS, HAZMAT, EMT, and learned how to drive a water tender (please Google this to see how impressive this feat is).

After Arizona she found an opportunity to continue this good work and to see some of the country’s most beautiful land. She considered Big Sky country, but ended up in Alaska because of their unique challenges in fire logistics. She served as a fire logistics dispatcher for the Alaska Fire Service, which is part of the Bureau of Land Management. In this role, she helped get the people, supplies, and aircraft out to remote areas of Alaska for wildland fires.

As is wont to happen, while in Alaska, Rachel ran smack into another Emory & Henry person! Daniel Griggs (’07) was there doing similar work and putting his geography background to good use. Giving Dr. John Morgan all the credit for getting him the right start, Daniel says he finds working for the fire service very “real” in the sense that there is “immediate need for accurate geospatial information.”  He ended up in Alaska because he had always wanted to visit the state, so when he got a job offer in Anchorage he jumped at the chance.

Rachel says folks in her position work seasonally—putting in 6 months of work and then filling the other half of the year with school, other work, travel, or personal projects and hobbies.  While the job sounds pretty cushy, it turns out those six months are pretty demanding.  On a fire assignment, dispatchers and firefighters alike usually work 14 straight days of up to 16 hour shifts.  In many ways, it’s more of a lifestyle than a job.

So what happens during those long days? This season, Daniel got sent out to the field as a GIS specialist, providing custom real-time maps of fires for the incident decision-makers.  Rachel moved to another dispatch center as an aircraft dispatcher, where she finds the helicopters and planes that support both fires and scientists in interior Alaska and the lower 48.  “It’s not every day you get to say, ‘Yeah, I ordered a jumbo jet at work today’,” says Rachel.  “The best part of the job is the constant challenge—you never know who is going to call or what they are going to need, and it’s great to be able to say, ‘Sure, I can make that happen,’ even when it means getting people or supplies into parts of Alaska your average tourist will never even think about visiting.”

With these new job demands, Rachel is less “fire fighter” and more “travel agent” -- booking flights into all corners of the state.  Whether they are VIPs touring Alaska before making recommendations on energy or land management policy, scientists researching animal habitats and archeological sites, or firefighters protecting Alaska’s assets, everybody knows they’ll have to fly to get to their Alaskan destination.  “I may miss the smell of smoke and getting to do things with my own hands, but what I can do with a phone and a radio allows those professionals to make the difference, and I’m proud to be part of their support network.”

While Daniel will stay on with Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks for the near future, Rachel plans to move on after this season ends.  “What’s next? I don’t know, but if you’d told me I was going to be a firefighter or live in Alaska while I was at Emory, I’d have laughed.  I just keep believing in the hope that people can do amazing things when we are willing to take on a challenge, even if it means leaving our comfort zones behind.”