JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
The primary mission of U.S. Army North is homeland defense, however, when requested, their forces may deploy to provide Defense Support to Civil Authorities for disasters and emergencies, such as wildland fires.
Since 1975, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior have had an interagency agreement with the Department of Defense which allows DOD to provide firefighting support to wildland fire management agencies when needed.
As part of that agreement, when the National Interagency Fire Center is stretched thin on ground forces, U.S. Army North, under the direction of U.S. Northern Command, is their go-to for assistance.
The call for support this wildland fire season came June 15, when the NIFC elevated to Preparedness Level 3.
“When NIFC reports reaching their Preparedness Level 3, U.S. Army North deploys a liaison officer to NIFC headquarters to assist in planning and operations,” said Glenn Richardson, emergency management specialist, U.S. Army North Land Operations. Currently, that liaison is U.S. Army North’s Capt. Erickson Lee, Defense Support to Civil Authorities plans officer, who works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Defense Coordinating Element in Region 10. Lee deployed from Anchorage, Alaska, where he is normally stationed, to NIFC for the summer fire season.
It is Lee’s mission to become immersed in the NIFC environment and coordinate communications between the center and U.S. Army North, in preparation for when the NIFC reaches Preparedness Level 4 and has committed most of their resources.
“I work very closely with all of our interagency partners at NIFC to provide the DOD a clear snapshot of wildland fire activity as it progresses through the season,” Lee said.
When Level 4 is reached, the NIFC may submit a request for assistance which, once approved by DOD, allows U.S. Northern Command to direct U.S. Army North to deploy ground forces to a fire base camp.
Preparing those Soldiers to deploy in support of wildland firefighting takes time, but U.S. Army North personnel are prepared for the task.
“There is considerable coordination required to get the forces trained, equipped, and transported to the fire, as well as continued support while they are on the mission,” said Martha Wilkins, U.S. Army North emergency management specialist, who also works with FEMA DCE in Region 10.
Personnel at U.S. Army North work with U.S. Northern Command and NIFC to train and equip the ground forces who may be required to respond, beginning with providing the NIFC the sizes of the Soldiers from the battalions identified to deploy so they can be properly equipped with wildland fire personal protective equipment, Wilkins said. This includes fire retardant pants and shirts, as well as specialized firefighting tools and equipment.
The selected ground forces then receive an orientation briefing so they have a general idea of what to expect in the fire camp, food, lodging, timeline for deployment, training, and so on, Wilkins said.
Next, wildland firefighting training begins.
“When DOD support is required, NIFC deploys training cadre with military crew advisors to the ground force home station to conduct five hours of classroom training,” Richardson said. “Further hands-on training occurs when a unit deploys to the fire base camp. Soldiers receive sixteen hours of field training which includes a wide variety of firefighting practices and techniques. All of the training is facilitated by NIFC trainers.”
Accomplishing all of the pre-deployment requirements for an entire battalion is more complicated than usual this year due to COVID-19.
“The pandemic further complicates all response operations. Ground forces will have to observe force health protection measures to the greatest extent possible while preparing for and executing a wildland firefighting mission, but U.S. Army North and U.S. Northern Command are doing all that they can to ensure forces are trained and prepared to perform this mission in the COVID19 environment,” Wilkins said.
Once a U.S. Army North battalion is trained and equipped to deploy, they set off for the fire base camp, where they can expect to be for up to a month.
“Ground force support can extend up to thirty days and consists of a battalion task force with a command element and up to twenty firefighting teams who will be embedded with civilian firefighting counterparts,” Richardson said, noting that DoD is fully reimbursed by the U.S. Forest Service for the total cost of the support provided.
“The mission of U.S. Army North ground forces once they arrive at the fire base camp is to do the kind of fire mop-up work that is important to extinguishing and containing a fire, but does not require extensive firefighting training,” Wilkins said. “The employment of our ground forces frees up the more highly trained professional firefighters to do what they do.”
While the work the Soldiers do can still be dangerous, U.S. Army North and NIFC personnel do their best to prepare and equip the deploying service members so they are fully prepared for the task of fighting wildland fires.
“Each ground force team of 20 Army personnel is accompanied by a trained firefighter and linked into the larger effort,” Wilkins said. “Each service member is also issued what is called a fire shelter. This shelter can be used in an emergency to protect an individual from the heat and direct flame if a fire shifts and the individual is not able to reach a safety zone.”
The NIFC also makes every effort to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“The safety of the public, communities and all front-line responders remains the highest priority for all wildland fire agencies,” according to NIFC.
During most fire seasons, which run from May through October, the NIFC relies heavily on many different entities, in addition to U.S. Army North, to provide support to their mission of extinguishing the nation’s wildland fires.
“The NIFC relies on civilian and contracted land and air firefighting capabilities as a primary means of support, and requests DOD assistance when additional support is needed,” Richardson said. “National Guard, Reserve component, and Active component forces have provided firefighting support for over 30 years.’
“Army North’s support is essential to NIFC’s efforts to save lives, mitigate property damage, and maintain public confidence in government,” he said.
Over the last three years, U.S. Army North has deployed forces to support Wildland Fires in Mendocino, California and in Roseburg, Oregon.
To learn more about U.S. Army North, visit www.arnorth.army.mil.