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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.

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Army Spc. Sean Collins from Fort Hood, Texas, battles a hot spot that has ignited a small log.
  

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"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.)

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Related Articles:
AFPS News Article: Clinton Visits, Praises Idaho Firefighters
AFPS News Article: Soldiers, Marines Join Wildfire Battle

Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guardsmen prepare to leave Helena National Forest after patrolling for hot spots following a massive wildfire. The Montana Guardsmen are supporting the U.S. Forest Service. Fires recently scorched more than 119,000 acres statewide. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jack Holt, NGB.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Army National Guardsman walks toward volunteer fire trucks on station battling an out-of-control fire south of Helena, Mont. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jack Holt, NGB.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSoldiers from the Army's 3rd Battalion, 16th Artillery Regiment, Fort Hood, Texas, make their way through the charred terrain of the Payette National Forest.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Capt. Keith Machen monitors radio traffic among his three firefighting teams.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Eddy White of Helena leads his 20-man fire crew off the fire line following mop-up operations after a massive wildfire swept through Helena National Forest. The citizen-soldiers are assigned to the Anaconda-based Detachment 1, Company B, 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jack Holt, NGB.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWearing brightly colored fire-resistant clothing supplied by the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Army National Guardsmen of Company A, 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment wait to board buses to go to their base camp at Hellgate Gulch, near the state capital of Helena, where tens of thousands of acres have been destroyed by wildfires. Montana called hundreds of its guardsmen to state active duty to support firefighting operations. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking, NGB.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guardsmen from the town of Anaconda load a truck with firefighting equipment and food needed in their battle against raging fires at Hellgate Gulch, near the state capital of Helena, where tens of thousands of acres have been destroyed by blazes. Montana called hundreds of its guardsmen to state active duty to support firefighting operations. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking, NGB.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guardsmen trudge up a fire- scared hill after turning in their camouflage uniforms for bright-yellow firefighting garb. They are performing mop-up duties in the Helena National Forest after wildfires ravaged the area east of the state's capital. Montana called hundreds of its guardsmen to state active duty to support firefighting operations. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jack Holt, NGB.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guard Spc. Brandon Garneau of Great Falls, an infantryman with his hometown-based Company B, 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment, digs out a potential hot spot at the base of a tree while performing mop-up operations following a wildfire that swept through Helena National Forest. Garneau works for a tree-trimming service in civilian life. "It's been all right, but it's pretty treacherous on the mountains with the loose rocks up there. You have to be careful," he said. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking, NGB.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guard Spc. Brandon Garneau gulps down a badly needed drink of water after coming off an all-day operation mopping up a wildfire that swept through Helena National Forest. Garneau is a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment, based in his hometown, Great Falls. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking, NGB.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMontana Army National Guard Spc. Robert Houston of Great Falls, a citizen-soldier with Detachment 1, Company B, 1st of the 163rd Mechanized Infantry Battalion, checks for hotspots while mopping up a fire in the Helena National Forest. Montana called hundreds of guardsmen to state duty to augment U.S. Forest Service firefighters. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jack Holt, NGB.  
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