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More Troops Tabbed to Battle Montana Wildfires

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23, 2000 – A battalion of soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., are to join firefighters in Montana following federal officials' request for more troops to help battle record wildfires.

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Army Spc. Gerome Davis rests before resuming his place on the fire line in Payette National Forest in Idaho. Photo by Staff Sgt. William Ellis, USA.
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

A composite battalion of soldiers from XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg is scheduled to deploy Aug. 28 to assist firefighting efforts in Montana, said Army Maj. LeAnn Swieczkowski, a public affairs officer working with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The NIFC asked the Defense Department for 25 more 20-person firefighting teams, she said, so the new contingent would be about 500 troops.

Like the soldiers and Marines deployed two weeks ago to support firefighters in Idaho, these new troops will perform mop-up duties in burned-through areas behind forward lines, Swieczkowski said.

"They'll be digging through soil, smothering embers, like you'd rake through smoldering ashes in a fireplace," she said. Upon arrival in Montana, the troops will receive two days of firefighting and safety training before they deploy to the fire lines.

The Fort Bragg troops will join more than 500 soldiers from the 20th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, Swieczkowski said. The 20th arrived in Montana Aug. 13 and is providing support to firefighters in the Lolo National Forest near Hudson, she added.

Extremely dry conditions across the western United States this year have transformed most forests into tinderboxes, especially in Idaho and Montana, according to NIFC officials. Calling the wildfire situation the worst in decades, they instituted a "Preparedness Level 5," committing all federal firefighting resources to the effort, including National Guard and Reserve troops.

In late July, the NIFC asked DoD for active-duty troops to bolster stretched local resources in battling fires that have now burned more than 5 million acres of forest, Swieczkowski said.

About 500 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, also from Fort Hood, arrived in Boise Aug. 1 to help battle blazes in Payette National Forest and 500 Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived in Idaho Falls Aug. 5 to support firefighters in Salmon-Challis National Forest.

After two days of training and issuance of special firefighting equipment, the Fort Hood artillerymen began mop-up duty in Payette Forest on Aug. 4, a mission Spc. 4 Gerome Davis compares to wartime operations.

"This is a lot like combat," said Davis, a 26-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y. "The fire is the enemy, and you have to be careful or you'll take casualties. Our military training helps with this.

"We're doing a lot of marching, so conditioning is important. Our discipline is real important, too. In combat, you can't complain. We know we always have to be flexible," he added.

Besides active-duty troops like Davis, the National Guard in 10 states has activated more than 1,300 Army and Air Guardsmen for direct air and ground firefighting support and to assist with law enforcement, according to DoD officials. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 aircrews continue to fly slurry missions, having dropped millions of pounds of fire retardant chemicals.

As local and military firefighters continue to battle blazes in Montana, state officials last week offered an assessment of the situation.

"This may be continuing until there is snow on the ground," said Jim Greene, chief administrator for Montana Disaster Services.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Army Staff Sgt. William Ellis, 4th Public Affairs Detachment, contributed to this report.)

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