Putting Out Wildfires One Charred Stump At A Time
by U.S. 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
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.”
August 2, 2018 - Soldiers with
the Oregon Army National Guard fight the Garner Complex Fire
side-by-side with firefighters from the Oregon Department of
Forestry (ODF) north of Grants Pass, Oregon support from the
Oregon National Guard is adding much needed capacity to ODF
to fight fires. (Army National Guard photo by Maj. John
Farmer, 115 Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
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
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
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.
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.