US Army Sends Soldiers to Battle Western Wildfires

Chris Jasurek
By Chris Jasurek
August 6, 2018US News
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US Army Sends Soldiers to Battle Western Wildfires
Forest burns in the Carr Fire west of Redding, California on July 30, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Getty Images)

The U.S. Army is deploying 200 troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to help fight wildfires raging across the Western states.

Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Robert Manning III announced on Aug. 6, that the 200 soldiers would be split into 10 teams of 20 and assigned to fight a single fire.

The army is already pitching in to fight fires in California, Col. Manning told the press. “Currently, four military C-130 [Hercules aircraft] equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems are serving as large air tankers and are operating from Sacramento’s McClellan Airport in California,” he announced.

He added that an RC-26 Metroliner aircraft based in Spokane, Washington, was helping the Forest Service to detect and monitor wildfires in the Western states.

The troops will be trained and deployed to assist civilian firefighters at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

Already, thousands of National Guardsmen are actively assisting in fire-fighting efforts in several states, including Oregon, California, and Washington.

Oregon Army National Guardsmen fight the Garner Complex Fire with firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry north of Grants Pass, Ore., Aug. 2, 2018. (Maj. John Farmer/Oregon Army National Guard)
Oregon Army National Guardsmen fight the Garner Complex Fire with firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry north of Grants Pass, Oregon on Aug. 2, 2018. (Maj. John Farmer/Oregon Army National Guard)

Unusual Amount of Wildfire Activity

The NIFC reported that more than 134 wildfires were actively burning on some 1.6 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska.

Trees burn in the Carr Fire west of Redding, California on July 30, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Getty Images)
Trees burn in the Carr Fire west of Redding, California on July 30, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Getty Images)

“Weather and fuel conditions are predicted to continue being conducive to wildfire ignitions and spread in most of the western U.S. for the next several weeks,” the Center stated in an Aug. 6 press release.

“We are committed to continuing to do everything we can to provide the firefighters, aircraft, engines, and other wildfire suppression assets that Incident Commanders need to protect lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources,” said Dan Smith, Chair of National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) at NIFC.

Firefighter Derek Longoria, of CalFire's Shasta-Trinity Unit, extinguishes flames near State Highway 299 while battling the Carr Fire near Redding, California on July 30, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Getty Images)
Firefighter Derek Longoria, of CalFire’s Shasta-Trinity Unit, extinguishes flames near State Highway 299 while battling the Carr Fire near Redding, California on July 30, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Getty Images)

In the release, NIFC explained that the soldiers would be outfitted with wildland fire Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and whatever other gear they might need to serve as wildland firefighters. On the ground, they would be supervised directly by experience civilian wildland firefighting strike-team leaders.

Further, the soldiers would receive an intensive, three-day training program while at their base near Tacoma, Washington. Much of the training will focus on firefighter safety, and how to be aware of developing dangerous situations.

According to NIFC, troops are expected to be on the ground and fighting a fire by Monday, Aug. 13.

Jay Karle, center right, a crew boss assigned to assist Soldiers of 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, trains soldiers in wildfire-fighting near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Aug. 20, 2015. (Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Porch/U.S. Army 28th Public Affairs Detachment)
Jay Karle, center right, a crew boss assigned to assist Soldiers of 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, trains soldiers in wildfire-fighting near Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Aug. 20, 2015. (Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Porch/U.S. Army 28th Public Affairs Detachment)

NIFC notes that the Army has been an important partner in wildfire containment for decades, providing both personnel and equipment.

Since 1987, U.S. Army personnel have been trained and deployed as firefighters 37 times. The latest instance was in Sept. 2017, when 200 soldiers were called out to assist with the North Umpqua Complex wildfires in Oregon.

Campfire Safety is the First Line of Defense

The best way to fight forest fires is to exercise proper care when building campfires.

The hiking blog Montem has a list of best practices which can serve two purposes; first, to allow campers to enjoy a crackling good fire while in the wilderness, and two, to keep forest fires from starting.

The most important concern is keeping the fire contained.

Whenever possible campers should use existing fire pits or fire circles.

A fire circle is a large cleared area—cleared of ground cover, bushes, twigs, anything flammable. I fire pit is a fire circle with a pit in the center, often surrounded by rocks.

Bothe serve to keep not just the flaming wood, but sparks, embers, and wind-blown branches from spreading the fire out of the designated area.

Campers can minimize blowing embers by not adding leafy branches or twigs to a burning fire. Twigs might make great tinder, but are only hazards once the fire is burning.

Also avoid soft woods—evergreens like pine and fir can contain a lot of sap which can explode a shower of sparks and embers outside the circle.

Montem suggests clearing a ten-foot radius circle around the actual fire. When choosing a campsite, it is best to plan where the fire circle will be first, and then set up the tents a safe distance away.

Never Leave a Fire

Although it should go without saying, it is too important not to say: campers should never leave a fire unattended.

Once the fire is lit, someone has to be nearby at all times. If a single spark lights ion an untreated tent or sleeping bag, everything the campers brought could go up in a flash—and the rest of the forest could follow.

If a gust of wind picks up a few embers and carries them to some nearby brush, the same thing could happen.

On the other hand, an alert camper can smother a secondary fire before it spreads. The difference is enormous.

Campers should gather twice as much wood as they think they will need. Often wood runs out late at night, and the last camper awake heads off alone to gather more, leaving the fire unattended.

The potential consequences are too grim to contemplate.

Have a Way to Stop a Fire

Before building a fire, plan how to extinguish a fire.

If there is plenty of water by the campsite, fill a bucket—a big bucket—with water to be used for nothing but fire emergencies.

If there isn’t water readily available, fill a big bucket with sand.

Before the last camper retires for the night, he or she should extinguish the fire—completely.

If using water, the camper should drown the fire, and stir the ashes, then wait—and repeat the process. Some of the water will steam away the first time, while plenty of heat will remain at the core of the fire, to reignite whatever didn’t get soaked.

If using sand or dirt, completely cover the fire, stir it, let it sit a bit to cool, and do it again.

Before leaving hr campsite at the end of their stay, campers should check one more time that the fire is completely dead—not even hot.   The wind can add fuel and oxygen to a still-hot pile of ashes, leading to a forest fire long after the campers have headed for home.

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