Defense Official Calls Wildfire Response ‘Awe-Inspiring’
By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2007 Thousands of servicemembers have been aggressively and selflessly fighting deadly wildfires this week, a top defense department leader said today.
“It is awe-inspiring to see the kind of response that is now being executed by civilian first responders, National Guardsmen and other military personnel in Southern California,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale told online journalists and “bloggers” during a conference call from the Pentagon.
“Many of these individuals are putting themselves in harm’s way for the protection of the rest of us,” he said, “and when you see that kind of selfless sense of purpose, it is inspiring.”
McHale praised National Guard Bureau chief Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum for immediately deploying four military aircraft from North Carolina and Wyoming to California on a training mission in case they would be needed in the firefighting effort, rather than waiting for the state’s governor to officially request federal help.
“He was extraordinarily proactive in his judgment, noteworthy in his common sense, and as a result, today while we speak, we have those four aircraft plus two more out of the Air Force Reserve actively flying tanker missions in the San Diego area,” McHale said. “General Blum’s sense of purpose and commitment is shared by every other man or woman in military uniform.”
In fact, the Defense Department was so aggressive in responding to the dozens of wildfires that scorched nearly 500,000 acres this week that military pilots and crews were in place and set to fly a full day before they were finally allowed to do so, McHale explained.
“There is indeed a requirement for a ‘spotter’ to be aboard a military helicopter before that helicopter engages in firefighting activity,” he said. “It does appear to be the case that our helicopters, some of our helicopters, were ready to go approximately 24 hours before the spotters became available.”
Some 2,500 National Guard soldiers were deployed to help fight the fires, McHale said, as were 350 active duty and civilian Defense Department employees. An additional 17,000 National Guard troops were on standby for activation to the fire lines should they be needed, he said.
“The military response to the wildfires in California was not inhibited in any way, to any degree, by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” McHale said. “The capabilities that we needed in Southern California were fully available from our domestic inventory of resources, and those capabilities were made available as fast as was humanly possible.”
Before troops ever were deployed in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, McHale pointed out, the scenario of a devastating Southern California fire actually was considered and accounted for.
“There was absolutely no degradation of firefighting response because of the overseas deployments,” he said. “In fact, we had considerable capability held in reserve.”
In its domestic inventory, McHale explained, the Defense Department has eight C-130 tankers specially fitted to carry and dump tons of orange, fire-retardant chemicals onto blazes. At any given time, two of those aircraft are undergoing scheduled maintenance, he said, leaving six of the massive four-engine turboprops available for firefighting.
“All six rapidly deployed to Southern California,” McHale said. “All six at this moment are executing missions in support of firefighting.”
To better respond to future natural disasters, McHale said, a “task force for emergency response” should be established in every state consisting of reserve-component military personnel who are employed full-time as government workers.
“So you take Guardsmen who have been trained as planners, Guardsmen who put their uniforms on during the weekend and who drill as members of the reserve component, but who during the week carry over those planning skills … to achieve integrated planning at the state level,” McHale said.
Such combined civilian-military task forces would be a great way to integrate local, state and federal agencies so that each is on the same page when it comes to planning for and responding to disasters such as the California wildfires, McHale said.
(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)