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Military Expands Role in California Fire Battle
Stars and Stripes  |  By Lisa Burgess  |  October 24, 2007
ARLINGTON, Va. -- The U.S. military on Tuesday ramped up its role in what in will be a significant federal response to the southern California fires.

"Whatever it takes to deal with this fire and the aftermath, we're prepared to stand with the citizens of California and the governor to provide that," Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Pentagon reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Military officials are speaking to California officials "about every four hours," Blum said. "We don't try to badger them to death, but we let them know that if we have it, if it's in our inventory, it's available to them."

About 9:30 pm Monday, the Pentagon received a request from the National Interagency Fire Center, which is coordinating the federal response to the fire, for six C-130 transports equipped with a system called the Modular Air Firefighting System (MAFFS).

The units are from the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming National Guard; the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina National Guard; and the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colo.

The first aircraft, from Colorado, were scheduled to touch down at Naval Air Station Point Magu, Calif., Tuesday afternoon, according to Paul McHale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense. The other units will follow.

But the inferno continued to be boosted by high winds Tuesday afternoon, preventing the firefighters from using the fixed-wing aircraft to attack the flames from the air.

"Just like the enemy doesn't follow our plan, the fire doesn't either," Blum said

The Navy was also providing two MH-60 aircraft to fight the fires, while the California National Guard is providing one CH-47 and five UH-60 helicopters in support of the effort, McHale said.

The Marine Corps has four more helicopters on standby at Marine Air Station Miramar, and another at Camp Pendleton.

Inside the state, the California National Guard is responding 1,100 Army National Guard and 400 Air National Guard, Blum said.

Meanwhile, the question remains whether active-duty troops will be called on to respond in number to the widening fires.

Monday afternoon California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the White House to request federal assistance.

In turn, President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties. That declaration allows the federal government to begin marshalling resources to respond to the crisis, including military personnel.

Among those military assets the federal emergency declaration makes possible to utilize is an active-duty assets is a regiment-sized task force of some 550 Marines from Camp Pendleton, McHale said.

The commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have not impacted the ability of the Pentagon to supply needed personnel or supplies to the fire-fighting effort, Paul McHale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, told reporters at the press conference.

"I can tell you unequivocally….the ongoing warfare activities in [U.S. Central Command] have had no negative effect at all," McHale said.

In fact, Blum added, the 3,000 soldiers from California who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were "carefully selected… to not take capabilities away from the state of California during firefighting season."

The Pentagon began coordinating its response to the fire Monday, McHale said.

These Marines prepare to support wildfire response efforts each year, according to base spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Chris Hughes.

This "ready-made, large force of operational personnel" could be on fire duty for up to 30 days, and be used tasks like monitoring controlled areas so they don't re-ignite, rather than being placed "on the hot lines," Hughes said.

"We're not fire fighters," Hughes said. "We're good citizens - we do windows - but we are a support element. We're not trained, skilled firefighters."

In terms of Defense Department involvement, the situation in California is "a more severe challenge" than the worst fires on record in the state to date, the wildfires that torched Southern California during the latter half of October, 2003, devastating an area larger than Rhode Island and claiming 22 lives, McHale said.

He said the reason is that this fire "presents a greater likelihood that a large number of DoD personnel would be actively employed in the firefighting."

"This is a more substantial commitment," than the 2003 fires, McHale said. "And it's not over. We are prepared for an even greater level of DoD commitment, if that proves to be necessary."

Of the two fatalities caused by the fire as of Tuesday, one was a DoD civilian employee, McHale said.

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