Defense Department ‘Leaning Forward’ to Help Californians
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2007 Defense Department officials have provided everything that California officials have asked for and are “leaning forward” to anticipate what they might need next, the department’s assistant secretary for homeland defense and American security affairs said here today.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale, joined by Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, holds a Pentagon news conference, Oct. 23, 2007, to update reporters on the types of support being provided by the Defense Department to help California officials deal with disastrous wildfires sweeping through the southern part of the state. Photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
California officials have ordered more than 500,000 people from their homes as the fast-burning wildfires continue their course of destruction.
President Bush has declared seven counties to be disaster areas, as more than 270,000 acres have burned. “All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes, and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes,” Bush said during a speech at the National Defense University here today. “We send our prayers and thoughts with those who've been affected, and we send the help of the federal government, as well.”
McHale said California officials have been pleased by the quickness of the federal response. He said all government agencies have a “sense of urgency and a recognition that lives are at stake” and are working together harmoniously.
The Defense Department has been providing support to state and local departments as the fire has progressed. “In this case, California needs help and DoD is prepared to provide assistance,” McHale said.
Defense personnel have been tracking the danger the fires present for several days. As the Santa Ana winds began blowing local fires into tempests, Defense officials began speaking regularly with California officials and with officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, McHale said.
Defense support falls into two areas: fighting the fire and humanitarian relief. About 100 Defense civilians and active duty military personnel are engaged in firefighting.
“We have 12 teams and equipment actively engaged,” McHale said. “There are 550 Marines who are preparing for possible deployment … to be engaged in firefighting activities.”
There has been no determination to put the Marines into the fight yet, and officials are using this time to train the Marines in firefighting techniques.
More than 17,000 California National Guardsmen also can aid in firefighting, McHale said.
In addition, six C-130 Hercules aircraft have modular air firefighting systems installed and will begin flying missions tomorrow morning, said Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. Four of the aircraft are from the Montana and North Carolina Air National Guard and two are Air Force Reserve aircraft out of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. All will drop fire retardant or water on the blazes.
National Guard, Navy and Marine Corps helicopters also are dropping water on the fire in an effort to contain the blazes.
Commanders of bases in the area have worked with local communities to provide cots, bedding, command and control and medical support to evacuation centers in the area. California National Guardsmen are working to ease the lives of about 10,000 Californians who are taking shelter in San Diego’s QualComm Stadium.
The department’s marching orders from Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England are to aggressively anticipate the missions that might be assigned to the Department of Defense and to begin preparing rapidly to respond without hesitation, McHale said.
An example of this forward-leaning approach was with the six C-130s fitted with modular air firefighting systems. “Lieutenant General Blum coordinated the training movements of the four MAFFs in the Air National Guard from Wyoming and North Carolina to train by flying to California so that if an operational mission materialized, those ‘training’ aircraft could quickly be converted to an operational aircraft,” McHale said. “We have used our authorities under law, and pushed our authorities to the limit in order to enhance our readiness to respond.”
McHale said he expects continued requirements for logistics support, transportation and perhaps additional requests for humanitarian relief.
Blum said that from his viewpoint, the effort against the California wildfires has been the “most proactive I have seen in my 40 years in the military.”
Military bases themselves also are threatened from the fires. The Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton has two fires on base. Neither is considered an immediate threat, base officials said. “We continue to watch these fires closely and advise residents to maintain awareness of the current fire condition and exercise caution," said Marine Col. James B. Seaton III, the base commander.