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The Raging Battle

Wildfires across the nation are growing more intense, threatening the safety of thousands of civilians and destroying millions of acres. Fortunately for local responders, there’s a versatile weapon in this fight: the National Guard Soldier.
SSG Shane Merlihan, a firefighter with the Colorado National Guard’s 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company, represents the many Guard Soldiers ready to battle Mother Nature as wildfire season spreads across the nation. Photo by Jeff Nelson, digital art by Tony Richardson
In this photo illustration, SSG Shane Merlihan, a firefighter with the Colorado National Guard’s 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company, represents the many Guard Soldiers ready to battle Mother Nature as wildfire season spreads across the nation. Photo by Jeff Nelson, digital art by Tony Richardson
Guard Soldiers perform a broad range of firefighting tasks as they support civilian authorities, including using driptorches for controlled burns. Photo from National Guard
Guard Soldiers perform a broad range of firefighting tasks as they support civilian authorities, including using driptorches for controlled burns. Photo from National Guard
Guard troops clean up areas destroyed by Colorado’s 2012 High Park fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres. Photo by Adam Livingston, SRSC photographer
Guard troops clean up areas destroyed by Colorado’s 2012 High Park fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres. Photo by Adam Livingston, SRSC photographer

 

Thousands of acres were still burning, but Staff Sergeant Shane Merlihan and his team didn’t smell the smoke in the early evening air as they mounted their huge trucks and slid into their seats. A 12M firefighter with the Colorado National Guard’s 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company, Merlihan and his comrades had breathed enough of it during their 16-hour day that they didn’t notice it now—their noses had given up sending that signal to their brains long ago. 

Twenty minutes later, as the trucks rumbled toward their base at Fort Carson, CO, the firefighters had no trouble picking up something else that was in the air that day: heartfelt gratitude. Thousands of local residents were lining the street. Some held signs. Some held cheering children. Hundreds of these people had already lost their homes to the blaze, but they were still there to say “thank you.” 

“It gave you just that extra motivation to dig in extra hard, because you could put a face with the situation,” Merlihan says. “Every day for six or seven days, there were just thousands of them coming to thank us.”

By the time 14,000 acres of the Black Forest fire had burned last year from June 11 to 20, it had made national news as the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history—509 homes were destroyed, 38,000 Coloradans were evacuated and two people were dead. But in the midst of the tragedy, Guard Soldiers were able to make a difference to thousands of families, just as they have in hundreds of wildfires across the country.

Unfortunately, Guard Soldiers, particularly out West, are finding neighbors in this type of distress all too often these days, as the problem of wildfires has grown significantly over the past decade. From 2011 to 2013, New Mexico and Texas also suffered the most destructive fires in the history of their states; Arizona battled its largest fire, and California experienced its third-largest fire ever. Since the National Interagency Fire Center began keeping detailed records in 1960, wildfires nationwide have burned more than 9 million acres in a year three times—all of them occurring in the past eight years (2006, 2007, 2012). And a study last year by the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science projected that by 2050, wildfires will be even more devastating.

With so many fires to fight, civilian agencies need help. That’s where Soldiers like Merlihan come in. 

MANY SKILLS, MANY ROLES

When fires get too hot for fire departments to handle, fire personnel request assistance through their state’s emergency management team, and the request goes up the chain of command. If the governor approves the request, the state’s adjutant general (TAG) will put a plan in place based on the location and severity of the fire, the response requested by the emergency management team, and the units available. Once deployed, the units are operationally controlled by the civilian fire commander. 

Guard firefighters can perform dozens of functions in an emergency. Their bread and butter is fighting fires, but they’re also trained in first aid, personnel rescue and crash (vehicles or aircraft) rescue. They could be assigned on the fire line, tasked with traffic or personnel management, or assigned to serve as safeties for crews working on the fire line (every crew has at least one safety whose only job is to watch the other firefighters’ backs). 

For a firefighter like Merlihan, who is also a civilian firefighter with the Eagle River Fire Protection District in Avon, CO, extra training specifically for wildfires brings a world of knowledge to the fight. He holds a “Red Card” certification, which is the industry standard for specialized wildland firefighters. His civilian experience, combined with his Guard training and the equipment that the Guard brings, make him and his unit a powerful asset.

Other states have taken a similar approach in preparation. In 2010, what began as a small fire in Camp Williams, UT, grew because of rising winds and spread across the range’s impact area, where firefighters were unable to follow it. Five days later, 4,351 acres had been burned and three homes destroyed. 

After this disaster, then–Adjutant General Major General Brian L. Tarbet instructed each of the ground units in the Utah Army National Guard to provide the state with Soldiers (mostly full-timers) who would be trained in the ins and outs of fighting wildfires. 

Sergeant First Class Jeremy Harrell, a 42A human resources specialist, is part of the group that was trained. “We’ve got linguists, we’ve got admin people like myself, readiness and training NCOs, engineers, artillery gunmen, and Special Forces,” Harrell says. “[We] come together as the call comes to fight the fires.” 

Every Citizen-Soldier has something unique they bring to the fight, whether it’s an engineer who can drive heavy equipment, or another pair of hands to sling a shovel. “There are always people that bring experiences [or knowledge] that can make a difference,” Harrell says. 

Utah’s not alone, either, as other specialties are often called up for wildfires. Military police can provide security for areas where looting might be a problem. Medics can provide aid for the wounded. Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team members might be deployed if there are suspected chemical agents involved in the fire. All these Guard mission capabilities are tools that can be put in the civilian commander’s tool belt.

Just as with any homeland mission, mixing military and civilian assets can be a challenge. In Oregon, Guard troops were being called up to work with civilian agencies so often that in 2006, the Oregon Army National Guard started a Fire and Emergency Services office under its headquarters’ G3 Operations division. Staff Sergeant Daniel Cleveland, with C Company, 7/158th Aviation (Medevac), runs the program as a dual-status technician and says their mix of civilian and Guard assets is pretty unusual. 

“This kind of program is few and far between throughout the U.S.,” he says. “There are a couple states that are doing it, but it’s been really rewarding for us.” The unit is made up mostly of civilian firefighters, but because it lives and breathes (and is run by) the Guard, integration between military and civilian teams is seamless.

Oregon Army National Guard SGT Mike Buchan, a crew chief with C Company, 7/158th Aviation, looks for spot fires around the Government Flats Complex fire from a Black Hawk near The Dalles, OR, Aug. 21, 2013. Photo by SPC Matthew Burnett

IN THE AIR

Another frequently used firefighting tool is the helicopter. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles “Chuck” Johnson, a member of the California Army National Guard’s 2/135th Aviation Regiment, is the aviation safety officer for the Army Aviation Flight Facility on Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento County, CA, and has fought fires for the California Guard for three years. 

The Guard will get the call when the fires exceed the capabilities of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Johnson says. “Normally, CAL FIRE does the initial attack on the fire, and then they bring us in to supplement the private aircraft, depending on how big the fire is and how fast it’s moving.”

CAL FIRE responded to 7,175 fires last year—almost double its five-year average. The state called Guard members up three times. One of those fires, the Rim fire, burned for more than two months until finally being contained in late October. It burned more than 400 square miles, destroying 100 structures. 

The most common mission for aircrews is dropping huge buckets of water in strategic places. Last year, the state of California’s Guard aircrews made 1,271 water bucket drops from specially designed helibuckets, such as the Bambi Bucket, totaling more than 1 million gallons of water. Helicopters can also be used to enable personnel to get a better view of how the fire is moving and behaving, for medevac purposes as well as transport. Last year, California Army National Guard aircrews moved 1,706 fire personnel and evacuees. 

No Soldier can perform this mission without proper training. Along with specialized training, troops that would most often be deployed to a wildfire take part in major training exercises like the one the Washington Army National Guard staged last year, Operation Evergreen Ember (OEE), which was a natural disaster exercise involving hundreds of Guard Soldiers. 

“We can’t control Mother Nature,” Washington Adjutant General and Major General Bret Daugherty said last year about the event. “It is the Washington National Guard’s paramount duty to protect lives and property during emergencies.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Fisher, squadron commander of the 303rd Cavalry Regiment, Washington Army Guard, one of the units involved in OEE, says events like that can change the way Citizen-Soldiers look at their service. “It’s very easy to get lost in our federal mission,” he says. “When you join the Army, you think of the federal mission nine times out of ten, but I love getting to help the citizens of Washington, because I’m a Washingtonian. Don’t get me wrong—I want to help the whole United States, but those opportunities where I can affect those people that are close to home probably mean just as much, if not more.”

Johnson echoes the sentiment. “It is very rewarding, when a fire is threatening a city or community, to be able to go out there and possibly save people’s houses, lives or well-being,” he says. “It’s nice to be a part of that and give back to the community and benefit your state. Even though it’s just one bucket at a time, you’re doing something [to help].”

HITTING HOME

Every day Merlihan and his teammates fought the Black Forest fire in Colorado, they ended their day driving through crowds of cheering people. On one of the last of the long days, as the team was riding its beast of a truck off into an actual sunset, he and a handful of his fellow firefighters stopped and personally thanked some of the people who had come out. 

“That’s the true Guard mission, to be involved in [your state],” Merlihan says. “So when stuff happens in your own backyard, you’re going to step to the front of the line and really dig in to help out, because it’s your neighbors that are having their worst day. And even after roughly forty days of deployments with state missions [in 2013]—even [on] that fortieth day, everybody was still motivated and ready to continue to help out.”

All of the National Guard Soldiers involved in the wildfire mission unite to fight against fires, but each of them is also fighting for something: their fellow citizens. And they’re up for as many battles as it takes.

 


 

 The 171st Aviation Regiment, Utah National Guard, performs water drops on a wildfire at Camp Williams, UT, in 2012. Photo from National Guard

WILDFIRE TERMS

Accelerant: Any material (usually flammable liquid) used to start or increase the rate of fire spreading.

Bambi Bucket: The brand of a collapsible device called a helibucket that hangs from a helicopter and dumps water on fires. 

Contained: The amount of wildfire that has a control line (or firebreak) encircling it (e.g., “The fire is 85 percent contained” means that 85 percent of the circle around the fire has a control line in place).

Firebreak: Any natural or man-made obstacle that will stop a wildfire from spreading, such as a stream, a trench, or a line of brush or trees cleared by firefighters.

Fire Line: The line that marks how far the fire has advanced. Being “on the fire line” means being assigned to monitor (or fight) the fire at its outermost area.

Flashpoint: The temperature at which a particular substance will catch fire. Below the flashpoint, wood will smolder. The lower the flashpoint, the quicker a fuel will burn. The flashpoint of dry pinewood is 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The flashpoint of rifle powder is 550 degrees. The flashpoint of charcoal is 660 degrees.

Fuel: Anything that a fire feeds off, such as wood, leaves or man-made material like a house. It is one of three things a fire needs to burn (fuel, air and heat). 

Helibucket: The term troops use (along with Bambi Bucket) for the device that holds and discharges water and flame retardant on fires and hangs from a helicopter. 

Prescribed Burn: An intentional fire set by forest or fire administrators, which can be used to clear dead forest material for wildlife or to remove fuel from an area to create a firebreak.

 


  

ANATOMY OF A WILDFIRE

With intensity of wildfires growing across the country, it’s more important than ever to know how they start, how they spread and how they’re neutralized. 

CAUSES

People. The National Park Service says that as many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are started by humans, and most of these are avoidable. Abandoned campfires, improperly discarded cigarettes and unattended trash that is left burning all cause hundreds of fires each year and lead to millions of acres of damage. 

Nature. There are two main natural causes of wildfires: lightning and lava. While human causes are much more common, fires started by natural elements actually cause more damage. With most natural fires occurring in unpopulated areas, this allows them to burn longer before being identified and contained. A National Interagency Fire Center study in 2013 found that more than 1.26 million acres were destroyed by fires started by humans, while lightning strikes destroyed 3 million acres. 

HOW WILDFIRES SPREAD

Fuel. This can be trees, leaves, logs or grass, or even houses. Fuel also affects the speed at which a fire will travel. The richer the fuel, the faster the movement. Droughts, like the one the western United States has been in for the last several years, dry out vegetation, and this prevailing dryness is one of the main reasons scientists expect wildfire frequency will continue to grow. One factor making this worse in Colorado is beetles that attack pine trees, destroying them from the inside out and turning them into powerful fuel.

Wind. The unpredictability of wildfires comes from the whims of Mother Nature. On May 5, 1980, forest rangers started a small prescribed burn (controlled fire) to clear brush in the Huron-Manistee National Forest in the pine barrens of north-central Michigan. The wind changed and turned the small fire into the legendary Mack Lake fire, causing 25,000 acres of scorched earth and destroying 44 homes. Changing winds are not only one of the driving forces behind the spread of fire, but one of the biggest hazards for firefighters.

FIGHTING TECHNIQUES

Because wildfires can be so ferocious, often firefighters will attempt to minimize their spread rather than trying to put them out. 

Cut off fuel. One of the most common tactics in wildland areas. To do this, firefighters use techniques such as firebreaks, which are lines where vegetation (or any other fuel) is removed by heavy machinery or by hand. When the fire reaches the firebreak, it can’t spread any farther.

Spray water. Water can be dropped in large amounts from helicopters, sprayed by trucks, or carried by firefighters and deployed where needed. The water is primarily used either to stop small outbreaks or to ensure that a fire that looks out actually is out. 

Use chemical retardants. Firefighters will occasionally use these in the form of gel or foam. These can be applied to homes (often by private organizations, compensated by home insurance) or used to fight fires directly.  

 


 

TOOLS FOR THE FIGHT

Firefighters (like Merlihan, pictured below) facing wildland fires are all about speed and agility. Unlike their brethren who focus on structural fires, wildfire fighters don’t wear heavy or bulky equipment. That means every piece of equipment, every piece of safety gear and every mode of transportation is built to move. 

To see a larger version of the image below, click here. Photo by Jeff Nelson.

SSG Shane Merlihan, a firefighter with the Colorado National Guard’s 1157th Engineer Firefighter Company, at Black Forest near Colorado Springs, CO, where he battled last year’s wildfire.