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NEWS | Aug. 18, 2016

Fighting fires: Army North supports National Interagency Fire Center

U.S. Army North Public Affairs

Since 1998, U.S. Army North, or ARNORTH, has provided support to wildland firefighting. While fighting fires isn’t a skill normally associated with Soldiers, those deployed to reinforce civilian firefighting efforts are more than up to the task.


“It’s not long before they are outperforming their civilian counterparts,” said John Bruce, ARNORTH current operations specialist who has worked wildland firefighting support for the past 11 years. “The Soldiers take a lot of pride in performing well. They don’t like to be outworked.”


Preparedness levels are assigned based on the extent of fire activity across geographic areas and the percentage of committed crews. Sending Department of Defense forces in to fight fires is an option of last resort, only after reaching preparedness level five, the highest of the levels.


Late August is a more likely time for DOD support to be requested. Many of the civilian firefighters go back to college which significantly reduces the crews available, Bruce said.


Forces Command, or FORSCOM, sources battalions from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and Fort Carson, Colo., before each wildfire season begins and ARNORTH personnel provide those units preseason briefings to give them an idea of what to expect if they are deployed.


Once a request for assistance from the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, in Boise, Idaho, is received and approved through DOD, the units ordered to deploy receive seven days of “just-in-time training” and the personal protective equipment they will need on site.


“The units receive three days of classroom instruction at home station from NIFC,” said Steve O’Brien, Region X Defense Coordinating Element emergency management specialist and a former firefighter.


Once they deploy to the base camp, they spend four days “cold trailing” before they move up to assume the live fire mission.


“Cold trailing isn’t really ‘cold.’ It requires them to carefully inspect for smoke, heat and smoldering areas around the fire edge,” O’Brien said. “They’ve got to dig and cover those areas with water or dirt until they are completely extinguished.”


Soldiers work in crews of 10, each led by an experienced U.S. Forest Service crew boss. Depending on each crew’s performance, the crew boss may recommend to the incident commander that they be moved up to cover other missions, such as chain sawing brush and small trees close to the fire line, digging or other tasks.


ARNORTH maintains a liaison officer at NIFC during the wildfire season, which runs from May to October. Once a unit is alerted to deploy, ARNORTH sends personnel like Bruce and O’Brien forward to ensure all base camp support is provided and to ensure the unit is well integrated with the civilian leads.


In 2015, the 5/3 Field Artillery Battalion from JBLM deployed to fight fires in Washington. In addition to performing well for the incident commander, they also built great relationships with the  local community.


“Soldiers visited local schools and attended town hall meetings, and the locals embraced them like family,” said Bruce. “The 5/3 FA Battalion has been one of the best units we’ve worked with – very professional.”

Local civilians have even brought lemonade and cookies to the Soldiers fighting to protect their homes.


“Most of the Soldiers really like this mission,” O’Brien said. “They know they are doing something to help the local community.”