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Firefighting Mission Ends for Army’s Task Force Blaze

By Patti Bielling
Special to American Forces Press Service

WINTHROP, Wash., Sept. 3, 2006 – Task Force Blaze is returning home to Fort Lewis, Wash., today, following a three-week deployment to fight wildfires in the state’s north-central region.

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Spc. Aldo Gonzalez lights a fire as part of a burnout operation. Gonzalez is one of 550 soldiers making up Task Force Blaze, which deployed to firelines Aug. 17 to assist civilian firefighters with containing the huge Tripod Complex fire near Winthrop, Wash. Gonzalez is an Avenger crew member assigned to 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Fort Lewis, Wash. Photo by Patti Bielling

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The military had worked side by side with civilian firefighters since mid-August, filling a crucial need for ground crews.

Employing the 550 soldiers on the Tripod Complex and Cedar Creek fires freed 25 civilian fire crews for other missions, said Doug Shinn at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

“Deploying Task Force Blaze allowed us to diversify our assets,” Shinn said. “We were able to reallocate civilian crews to other large fires or to initial attack of fires throughout the West.”

The soldiers helped protect about 500 structures near Mazama, and they helped battle flames and construct 50 miles of fireline to contain the 230-square-mile Tripod Complex fire near Winthrop.

Task force commanders and staff worked with incident managers every day and contributed to the decision-making process in a very positive way, said Jeff Whitney, Tripod Complex incident commander.

“What I’ve seen from the Task Force Blaze leaders is what we in the firefighting community study – qualities like sole attention on the welfare of the troops, willingness to do whatever is required of them, unyielding focus on the mission, and a willingness to lead and be present,” he said. “The respect, integrity and service they display are exemplary.”

Task Force Blaze comprises soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment; 23rd Chemical Battalion; 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment; 4th Battalion, 6th Aviation Regiment; 29th Signal Battalion; and the 28th Public Affairs Detachment.

The task force serves under the operational control of the United States Army North, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The command is the Army component of United States Northern Command, which is responsible for providing defense support of civil authorities.

Although military ground crews are redeploying, four Air Force crews will continue to fly air tanker missions called MAFFS, which are named for the Military Airborne Firefighting System mounted in the back of a C-130 aircraft.

“MAFFS are a really valuable initial attack tool,” said Col. Dave Hall, defense coordinating officer at the fire center. “Some upcoming predicted weather events – dry lightning, winds, high temperatures – dictate that the Fire Center keeps this initial attack capability available for now.”

As the hot and dry weather continues in much of the western United States, the National Interagency Fire Center advises that the public can play a role in preventing wildland fires. A car’s hot exhaust system, a discarded cigarette butt or a campfire can spark a fire, officials said.

In addition, homeowners can protect their property by creating “defensible space” around structures – maintaining a clearing of 30 feet around homes, creating fuelbreaks such as driveways, gravel walkways and lawns around structures, and removing firewood as well as fallen branches, needles and other fire fuels around their property.

(Patti Bielling is assigned to U.S. Army North Public Affairs.)

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U.S. Army North

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSmoke from the Tripod Complex fire encircles Steve Hiscock, a civilian firefighter and military crew advisor to Task Force Blaze. The 550-soldier task force deployed Aug. 17 from Fort Lewis, Wash., to assist civilian firefighters with containing the huge blaze near Winthrop, Wash. (Photo by Patti Bielling)  
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