Soldiers, Marines Join Western Firefight
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 9, 2000 It is hot, dangerous and dirty duty, but soldiers and Marines deployed to Idaho to help combat record wildfires in the western United States say they are glad to be there.
Army Spc. Sean Collins from Fort Hood, Texas, battles a hot spot that has ignited a small log.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"They see it as a challenge and they're working hard," said Army 1st Lt. Andre M. Brown. "We're not on the direct fire line, but we're putting out fires. It is dangerous business, but I have good troops. … They're very motivated."
More than 2,200 troops have joined forces with civilian firefighters. About 500 soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, including those from C Battery, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, arrived in Boise Aug. 1; about 500 Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived at the Idaho Falls airport Aug. 5.
After two days of training, the soldiers took their place on fire lines Aug. 4 at Burgdorf Junction, about two hours north of Boise in Payette National Forest.
"We went to a fire line that had been burned through … to perform mop-up operations," said Brown, C Battery's 1st Platoon leader, as he and his troops prepared to assault the wildfires for a second day. "You try to put out any existing fires and prevent them from recurring."
Brown, 25, noted his 20-troop unit had been outfitted with equipment and tools such as heat-resistant fire suits, safety helmets, goggles, leather gloves, heavy-duty boots, shovels and pulaskis, an ax-like tool. The Huntsville, Ala., native said he was proud of his soldiers.
An additional Army battalion of 500 soldiers, the 20th Engineers, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, is scheduled to go to western Montana to battle wildfires there, according to Army officials.
In Idaho, the soldiers' day begins at 5 a.m., said Staff Sgt. Eric L. Horton, 29, from Boynton Beach, Fla. After breakfast and wash-up, said Horton, who noted the meals in camp are catered and very good, National Guard trucks transport the troops for the 90-minute ride to the worksite. The troops eat a sack lunch in the field. Around 6 p.m., he said, the soldiers are usually done for the day.
"We're used to deployments," said Horton, a section chief in C Battery's 2nd Platoon. "The difficult thing about this mission is the physical part. The air is thinner here. We're walking up and down mountains. The elevation is between 7,000 and 11,000 feet, so we're pretty tired at the end of a shift.
"I feel that the Army is doing a great deed in helping civilian, other (state and federal) agencies now."
At base camp, the soldiers are housed in Army-issue general- purpose medium canvas tents and "sack-out" in sleeping bags on cots, said Horton, who estimates his soldiers will be in Idaho "about a month," and then be relieved by another unit.
"They're treating us real well," said Pfc. Alexander L. Morales, 21, a C Battery, 1st Platoon artilleryman from Detroit. "We're doing a lot of hiking up mountains, smothering fires. Not many soldiers here have fought fires before, and that is why the training is important.
"This is something new," he said.
Army Master Sgt. Don Thomas, 5th U.S. Army public affairs liaison to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, met the Marines when they arrived in Idaho Falls Aug 5. Fifth Army is the command and control element for all DoD forces deployed to the firefighting effort, he said.
"Great physical conditioning is among four reasons NIFC has called the partnership with the military a 'natural fit,'" said Thomas. "They (NIFC) also liked the fact the troops are used to structure and a chain of command, that they are mission-oriented and know and understand the importance of maintaining their equipment."
The Camp Pendleton Marines trained for two days and then deployed to battle another Idaho fire in Salmon-Challis National Forest. Thomas asked Marines Aug. 5 if they were ready to join the fray.
"It's the Marine Corps' job to protect our country in time of need, so that's why we're here," said 21-year-old Houstonian Sgt. Donald A. Hunt, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. "We definitely want to help."
"From the classroom training I think we'll be digging fire breaks and clearing out some brush," said Marine Lance Cpl. Cody B. Brent of Jacksonville, Fla. "This is not out of the military's lane, because we're serving our country doing our job to help out the citizens."
The Idaho deployment is business as usual for Gunnery Sgt. Larry B. Robertson, a native New Yorker with 18 years in the Marine Corps.
"I enlisted to see the world and do everything that's ever needed … whether in war or peace, this is what we're here for," Robertson said. "So, if we need the Marine Corps to come help the people of Idaho, that's all right.
"Normally we're infantry. Basically, we do the same thing going on lots of forced marches and a lot of physical training, so we're up to the task," he said.
(Editor's Note: Army Master Sgt. Don Thomas of 5th Army Public Affairs, contributed to this report.)