Guard Forces Go to Ground in State's Fire Fight
By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., July 7, 2008 The first group of 200 California National Guard members called out by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for direct ground support on the fire line July 1 have competed their classroom training and are ready to deploy for hands-on training tomorrow, National Guard officials here said today.
California Army National Guard soldiers receive firefighting training from California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention instructors to prepare them for the possible dangers they might face. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Stuart Brown, California National Guard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Answering two call-ups by Schwarzenegger for additional wildfire assistance on the ground last week, 400 California National Guard members joined or were preparing to join the more than 20,000 civilian ground-based firefighters and support personnel today engaged in extinguishing 330 active fires charring the state.
Officials said that the addition of Guard members at the fire lines will help relieve "overburdened and exhausted" firefighters on the ground. It's the first time California Guard members have formally deployed for the governor to a fire line in nearly three decades.
"I have ordered additional California National Guard soldiers to provide direct ground support to our firefighters in their efforts," Schwarzenegger said. "These additional soldiers will bring much-needed assistance to the efforts of the firefighters who continue to tirelessly battle the blazes across California."
Nearly 1,000 National Guard members are supporting numerous firefighting operations in California. Since June 21, at least 32 Guard fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft and aircrews from more than half a dozen states repeatedly have joined state and federal agencies battling wild land blazes from the state's smoke-filled skies.
The Guard's aerial missions have dropped more than 1.7 million gallons of water and fire retardant in and around the state's wild land fires.
Most recently, aircrews from the California Guard's 129th Rescue Wing joined the air battle as the state's first combat search and rescue wing to qualify and carry 660-gallon buckets of water to the wild fires.
The recent introduction of National Guard ground forces into the fire fight includes 200 soldiers who trained at the state's Wild Land Fire Training Center at the former McClellan Air Force Base.
"The California National Guard is actively engaged in responding to the wildfires in Northern California by providing assistance to local authorities and to the citizens of the affected communities," Army Maj. Gen. William Wade, California adjutant general, said. “We continue to do this through air assets and personnel and equipment on the ground. The California Guard is proud of its ability to respond rapidly to those citizens affected by this horrible disaster.”
Officials said the soldiers were trained by the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention personnel in fire behavior, fire safety and how to create fire containment lines using hand tools. The soldiers will be issued equipment tomorrow and conduct hands-on fire training today at a "cold-line" section where wild fires have previously burned. A majority of the soldiers are from the 100th Troop Command and the 115th Regional Support Group.
"It will be tough work, tedious and dangerous," said retired Army Col. Terry Knight, director of community relations for the California Guard. "They are getting hot and heavy as we speak."
Knight said a primary function for the two teams will be to construct fire lines, by hand, in places heavy equipment cannot reach. Still, other Guard officials said, the Guard members also will provide follow-up support and may possibly end up fighting active wild fires.
Officials said an additional 200 California Guard soldiers, called out by the governor July 4, are the next group to train at McClellan for ground firefighting support.
Other California Guard forces on the ground are providing truck transportation and command and control personnel for civilian responders. Eight California Guard bulldozers and operators are also cutting fire lines in their efforts to contain the blazes.
(Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves with the National Guard Bureau.)