Soldiers, Marines Join Wildfire Battle
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2000 Soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, and Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., will join with civilian firefighters to combat the worst wildfires in the western United States in more than a half-century.
About 500 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery and a similar number of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, will take their positions on fire lines in Idaho, said Department of Defense spokesman Kenneth Bacon Thursday. The soldiers will assist fire-fighting efforts near Burgdorf Junction, about two hours north of Boise. The Marines are scheduled to fight fires at the Clear Creek in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
The soldiers and Marines “will really help us out a lot,” said Mary C. Apple, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, which requested DoD assistance Monday. The soldiers, said Apple, have completed fire- fighting training.
“[August 4] will be their first day on the fire lines,” she said.
This year’s western wildfires have destroyed 3.8 million acres of forest, said Apple.
In fact, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt noted today that the fires were the worst in more than 50 years.
Active duty service members are rarely called in to fight forest fires, said Bacon. He noted that state Guardsmen are often used in such emergencies, since “that can, of course, be done at the governor’s discretion.”
“We are clearly a backup force and [have been] called in to help supplement and relieve civilian fire fighters,” he said.
The soldiers and Marines are mostly providing ground “mop- up” fire containment and other support behind front-line civilian firefighters, said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Milord on Thursday. More than 1,800 active duty and reserve component troops are now involved in the operation, including 500-600 Air and Army National Guardsmen on state active duty, he said.
Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units deployed from California, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina have “been actually at work for some time and have flown a number of missions in the last several days,” said Bacon. They have flown missions in eight C-130s specially outfitted to drop water or flame retardant on the fires, he said.
Less than normal amounts of winter snowfall and little rain during the spring have left many states like Idaho, parts of Utah and Nevada, western Montana, and parts of California bone dry and susceptible to forest fires, said Michelle M. Barret, another NIFC spokesperson.
Even U.S. military assistance may not be enough to combat this year’s wildfires, said Apple. Canadian firefighters are expected to join the fray and fire-fighting experts from New Zealand and Australia will also join the effort, she said.