Army Sends 200 Soldiers to Battle Wildfires in Pacific Northwest

Firefighters and Washington National Guard soldiers work to extinguish hot spots on a hillside as they fight the First Creek Fire, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, near Chelan, Wash (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Firefighters and Washington National Guard soldiers work to extinguish hot spots on a hillside as they fight the First Creek Fire, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, near Chelan, Wash (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Army is mobilizing 200 active-duty troops to help firefighters battle deadly wildfires in the Pacific Northwest at the request of the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, service officials said.

The move comes a day after three firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service died when they were overcome by the blaze in a rural part of Washington state.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved the request and is sending the 17th Field Artillery Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington to provide military support to the ongoing fire suppression efforts, officials said.

"It is an honor and a privilege to serve our nation," said Lt. Col. James Dunwoody, commander of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery, 17th Fires Brigade, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The soldiers will be organized into ten crews of 20 persons each. They will head to the so-called Tower fire in the Coleville National Forest north of Spokane.

The mobilization of soldiers, which includes a small command-and-control element, marks the first time active-duty soldiers have been mobilized to fight fires since 2006, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino said.

Buccino said there’s a natural correlation between the skills possessed by trained soldiers and those needed to successfully fight fires.

While the soldiers have been training with expert firefighters to learn how to conduct specific fire-suppression tasks, they already have command and control skills, medical training, physical fitness, chain-of-command experience and the ability to operate in an austere environment, Buccino said.

Among other things, the soldiers will be used in what’s called a "cold line" capacity, meaning they will examine areas that have already burned in an effort to make sure no materials re-ignite, Dunwoody said. They will also be working around the fire line and conducting mop up activities, he added.

As part of their preparation, soldiers are training with Bureau of Land Management fire-suppression experts and firefighters from various national and local organizations to learn more about the kinds of activities they will be called upon to conduct. This includes being outfitted with the requisite personal protective equipment used by firefighters.

Since 1987, active-duty military personnel have been mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters a total of 35 times, an Army statement said. 

Several states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, have mobilized National Guard personnel to serve as wildland firefighters and sent helicopters to assist with wildfire suppression efforts.

--Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com.

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