By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2006 – Some 550 active-duty soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash., will be conducting a different kind of firefight in the days ahead: helping control wildfires that have burned more than 83,000 acres in Washington's Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. Task Force Blaze, made up of many Fort Lewis units, boarded buses today after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the green light to the mission, which is expected to last about two months, according to Army Major Cathy Wilkinson, a 1st Corps plans and operations officer.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, requested the deployment last week due to a critical shortage of civilian firefighting crews and unfavorable weather forecasts. The task force, commanded by Army Lieutenant. Colonel Ricardo Love, includes 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment; 23rd Chemical Battalion; 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment; 4th Battalion, 6th Aviation Regiment; 29th Signal Battalion; and the 28th Public Affairs Detachment.
NIFC teams arrived at Fort Lewis over the weekend to brief leaders about the mission and conducted classroom training for the troops involved, Wilkinson said. The NIFC teams distributed personal protective equipment, including goggles, gloves, fireproof clothing and emergency shelters, then explained fire behavior and how crews operate at a fire site, Wilkinson said.
This morning, the soldiers began a five- to six-hour bus ride to the Tripod Complex fire near Winthrop, Wash. There, they will receive additional on-site training to reinforce what they learned in the classroom and are expected to begin firefighting duties by the week's end, Wilkinson said.
Meanwhile, four Air National Guard C-130 aircraft and supporting crews are deployed to the mission. Two of the aircraft, from the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Air Wing, are flying out of Klamath Falls, Ore. Two California Air National Guard C-130s from the 146th Air Wing, in Channel Island, Calif., are deployed to Boise.
Both groups use the U.S. Forest Service's Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems. The MAFFS is a modular unit designed to be inserted into a C-130 aircraft. Each MAFFS unit is capable of carrying about 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. When discharged from about 200 feet above the tree line, the system can cover an area about 60 feet wide and a quarter mile long in about 10 seconds.
Additional National Guard troops are conducting wildfire control missions against a variety of wildfires dotting the western United States, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said.
In Oregon, 54 Army National Guard members are deployed, along with a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with 750-gallon buckets, a UH-60 with a 1,000-gallon bucket, and various vehicles, Krenke reported.
The Montana Army National Guard has called 25 Guardsmen to state active duty to assist local firefighting efforts in Helena, Lewis and Clark, and Missoula, Mont. They have committed two UH-60 Black Hawks and various fuelers and other vehicles to the mission.
In Texas, 10 Air National Guard and 10 Army National Guard members are on duty to support the Texas Forest Service or other state agencies in wildfire suppression, Krenke said.
Two California Army National Guard troops are acting as aviation liaison officers for the Joint Operations Center and the Office of Emergency Services.