Exchanging his traditional Army camouflage hat for a yellow hard hat, Spc. Ashley Thornton listened intently Wednesday as professional wildland firefighters taught how to crawl into a personal fire shelter.
During a training session at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Thornton grabbed the human-sized cocoon meant to protect firefighters from extreme heat and falling embers. Then he fell to the ground, securing its handles under his chest.
The soldier is about to go on his first deployment. The fact that he will be helping fight wildfires in Eastern Washington, rather than insurgents in the Middle East, increased his comfort level.
“I was in the industry for 13 years as an industrial firefighter,” said Thornton, a former paper-mill worker and volunteer firefighter in Savannah, Georgia.
Now he’ll be one of 200 service members from JBLM’s 17th Field Artillery Brigade who will soon support crews fighting the North Star Fire Complex north of Republic.
This is the first time since 2006 that active-duty troops based in Washington have been mobilized as firefighters.
“We don’t have crews to send to the fires right now,” said Jill McCurdy, the Forest Service’s branch chief of fire and aviation training.
The soldiers won’t be on the front lines but will help with cleanup, giving other crews time to rest, said Frank Guzman, assistant director of fire and aviation training with the U.S. Forest Service.
Approximately 95 large wildfires are burning across 1.1 million acres in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Colorado, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The fire threatening the resort community of Chelan is consuming much of the state’s fire-suppression resources.
The interagency fire center in Boise requested military assistance. Fire managers can enlist military help when there aren’t enough civilian firefighting teams, thanks to a 1975 agreement between the federal Defense, Interior and Agriculture departments.
Even though many of the JBLM soldiers have no experience fighting wildfires, McCurdy said they’re a desirable resource.
“Being physically fit is a main requirement,” she said.
The ability to lead and work as a team is also important in an unpredictable environment, said Rod Bloms, a federal military liaison officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Wildland firefighters receive 40 hours of training before being allowed in the field, McCurdy said.
The soldiers will receive 37 hours, including five hours in the classroom at JBLM and additional field training before heading to Eastern Washington. Soldiers will receive the remainder of their training on site, said Lt. Col. James Dunwoody, commander of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.
The troops could be ready as early as Thursday morning (Aug. 20), but likely won’t leave until early Friday, Dunwoody said.
Since 1987, active-duty military personnel have been mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters 35 times. The last time a JBLM battalion was mobilized was nine years ago to help fight the Tripod Complex Fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Thornton said he’s ready to lend a hand.
“I’m softhearted,” he said. “I know somebody needs our help and that’s what’s on the front of my mind.”
3 FIREFIGHTERS KILLED NEAR TWISP
Three firefighters were killed Wednesday afternoon when winds shifted and they became trapped while fighting a wildfire near Twisp.
As many as four other firefighters were injured. It wasn’t immediately clear which agency the firefighters worked for.
“I was just told that three firefighters died while battling the Twisp fire and four were injured,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “My heart breaks over the loss of life … We will also keep the injured firefighters in our prayers.”
The tragedy comes as about 3,000 people in Twisp and Winthrop were ordered to evacuate, with the fire just west of Twisp rapidly spreading east.
“All residents should evacuate in the direction of Pateros or Omak immediately,” the Okanogan County Emergency Management department posted on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon. “Be aware of your surroundings, notify neighbors who many not have communications, and leave carefully.”
A Red Cross shelter is open at Brewster High School.
The Seattle Times