by U.S. Army Maj. John Farmer
October 25, 2018
Editor's Note: This informative story reflects wildland firefighting efforts during August 2018.
Imagine you’re out of bed before the sun rises for your daily workout routine. Maybe you’ll lift weights and incorporate some high intensity interval training – really get the heart racing. But instead of gym shorts and a tank top, you’re wearing heavy boots, a hard hat and a backpack. Your barbell is a mean-looking axe, and your gym is on the side of a steep mountain, which is covered in hot ash from yesterday’s conflagration. Your workout will last 12 hours.
Welcome to the world of wildland firefighting.
The process known as ‘mop up’ is one of the most crucial elements of fighting a wildland fire. It is methodical, backbreaking, intense and exhaustive and is one of the primary ways in which Soldiers and Airmen with the Oregon National Guard (ONG) are supporting the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) as they work to bring a series of fires under control in Southern Oregon during August 2018.
“Right now [the National Guard Soldiers] are digging up all the stuff that’s burning under the soil,” said Eric Brekstad, a task force supervisor with ODF. “It’s really hot and digging out… the stumps, roots, logs and whatever else has been buried over the years is what actually puts the fire out.”
Brekstad and his three 20-person crews are mopping up a two-mile stretch of the Grave Creek Fire. By methodically working their way 600 feet in from the main fire line, these 60 people will inspect an area the size of 110 football fields to ensure subsequent fires don’t flare up.
“We are securing the fire to keep it within its containment line,” said Brekstad.
Brekstad admits it’s not a glorious job, but it is vital to successfully extinguishing the fire. Having ONG on the scene eases some of the strain on fire crews that have been fighting the fire for the last few weeks. ODF can release some of their crews to get much needed rest and then prepare for the next incident.
This isn’t the first time Oregon Guardsmen have been called upon to assist ODF and other state agencies to fight fires. In 2017, ONG deployed more than 700 Soldiers and Airmen to help battle the blazes that were raging across Oregon.
There is a key difference between last year and this year when it comes to the Guard’s level of preparedness and ability to respond. Due to Title 32 federal funding, ONG was able to begin training Guardsmen weeks in advance, which has cut their response time in half.
Master Sgt. Marcus Merrick, the operations noncommissioned officer at the state’s Joint Operation Center, said in years past Soldiers and Airmen had to be put on State Active Duty before they could attend the Wild Land Firefighters Certification Course, a five-day course, which is what certifies them go out on the fire line.
Tack on three days of mobilization on the front end and a day or two of travel after course completion and you’re looking at approximately 10 days from the time they are notified and come on to state active duty until they’re actually cutting a fire line.
“With the funding we received to put Soldiers on Title 32 training status we were able to train them ahead of time. Now all we have to do is mobilize them, issue their gear and put them on the fire line,” said Merrick.
Training the Soldiers early isn’t limited to just mop up and cutting fire lines. Merrick said ONG is working to create a Guard force that is entirely capable of managing firefighting on its own.
“Right now we rely on ODF or the U.S. Forest Service to provide people that have the qualifications to be fire line leaders. Our Soldiers typically don’t have that depth of experience,” said Merrick.
Crew bosses, as they’re called, are the ones in charge of the 20-person fire crews that fight fires and conduct mop up. ONG provides the crew and ODF provides the crew boss.
“Going forward, we’ll get [our Soldiers] in to the fire line leader course to become certified crew bosses,” said Merrick. “So, in the next two to three years we could potentially have an entire National Guard team with crew bosses that are organic to the military.”
Even though there are no Guard crew bosses on the fire line this year, Soldiers who went through the 40-hour Wildland Firefighters Certification course at Camp Rilea in early July said the training prepared them very well.
Sgt. Hannah Fredrickson, a Military Policeman with the 1186th Military Police Company said elements of the training were more intense than what she’s seen out at the Garner Complex Fire thus far. In one of the training scenarios, instructors conducted a controlled burn and the trainees had to go through and mop it up.
“That was a lot more intense of a mop up because the area had just been on fire,” said Fredrickson, a native of Pendleton, Oregon. “We got to see how long it takes to actually put out a hot spot, because sometimes it goes deep down into the ground. I never realized that before the training.”
Despite the long days, hot sun and ever present ash, Fredrickson said this kind of work is particularly rewarding for her because she is helping fellow Oregonians. Not only is she helping those in need, but she is building teamwork and creating memories with her fellow Soldiers, some of whom she sees only on drill weekends.
“I really enjoy being a part of a team and it’s a lot fun to meet new people and work together on the same mission,” she said.