Active-Duty Army Engineers Being Sent to Fight California Wildfires

A U.S. Air Force plane drops fire retardant on a burning hillside in the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)
A U.S. Air Force plane drops fire retardant on a burning hillside in the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

About 200 active-duty troops from the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, will get a quick course in becoming "wildland firefighters" to battle the deadly wildfires devastating wide swaths of California, the Pentagon said Monday.

The 200 troops, plus command and support staff, will get one day of classroom training from firefighters at JBLM this week and then two more days of field training once it's decided which of the 18 major wildfires burning across California they will be asked to help contain.

The expectation is that the JBLM engineers will be on the ground in California by Aug. 13, said Army Col. Rob Manning, the Pentagon's director of press operations.

"The soldiers will be outfitted with wildland fire Personal Protective Equipment and all of the gear they will need to serve as wildland firefighters," U.S. Northern Command said in a statement.

The fledgling wildland firefighters from JBLM will be organized into 10 teams of 20 soldiers each, Manning said, but they won't be sent to battle a blaze on their own.

While supporting the overstretched California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), they "will be accompanied by experienced wildland fire strike team leaders and crew bosses from wildland fire management," NORTHCOM said in a statement.

It is not the first time active-duty troops from JBLM have been sent to help with California wildfires. Last August, JBLM soldiers gave support in battling blazes in northern California, said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

The 18 large wildfires burning across California have consumed about 559,000 acres, destroyed homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

One of the wildfires, the "Carr fire" near Redding, California, on the Sacramento River about 120 miles south of the Oregon border, has claimed seven lives, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scarred more than 163,200 acres, according to CAL FIRE.

In Redding, the Northern California Health Care System (NorCal) of the Department of Veterans Affairs has battled to keep open the Redding Outpatient Clinic, which serves about 11,000 veterans in the area, despite Redding clinic employees losing their homes and being forced to evacuate.

About 177 of the clinic's 199 staff have continued to report to work, NorCal said last Friday.

"The VA NorCal staff in Redding has set a standard in their commitment to local veterans," said VA NorCal Director David Stockwell in a statement. "Despite personal loss in many cases, they've managed to not only keep open the Outpatient Clinic's doors, but travel deep into the community to ensure displaced veterans are receiving the care they need and deserve."

The wildfires across the West have been fueled this year by drought conditions and unusual three-digit temperatures.

NORTHCOM's National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, has estimated that more than 127 wildfires are burning on about 1.6 million acres in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Alaska.

The request to the Defense Department for the 200 active-duty troops from JBLM came from the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) at NIFC.

"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, chairman of NMAC.

Active-duty military personnel have been mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters 37 times since 1987, according to the NIFC.

The last time active-duty military personnel were mobilized was in September 2017, when 200 soldiers from JBLM were mobilized to help battle the North Umpqua Complex wildfires in Oregon for 30 days, NIFC said.

The active-duty troops will join Air National Guard and Army National Guard personnel who have been engaged in battling the fires for weeks.

Four California Air National Guard C-130 aircraft were dropping retardants on the wildfires and about 1,200 California Army National Guard troops were on the ground, according to Davis. In addition, the California Guard has contributed seven helicopters and an RC-26 reconnaissance aircraft.

The Oregon National Guard has contributed 200 troops and five helicopters to the California firefighting mission, Davis said. The Texas National Guard has sent three UH-60 helicopters and the New Mexico Guard has sent an RC-26, he added.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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