April 10, 2005 in City

Guard shortages worry state officials

Melanthia Mitchell Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – As states in the Northwest prepare for what forecasters say could be a very bad wildfire season, forest officials are asking whether the war in Iraq will crimp their ability to call on National Guard troops for fire duty.

Guard units in some Northwest states have been returning home in recent months, but the concern now is whether they’ll be released from federal service and ready to help fight fires in the region.

Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said she’s fielded many questions regarding the availability of the National Guard, but it’s too soon to say if and where they’ll be needed.

Governors in several states are already rallying the troops.

“The Pacific Northwest, including northern Idaho and western Montana, has pretty serious water and fuel issues, so the folks in those states are being wise to look at preplanning,” Davis said.

Wildland fires burned more than 155,000 acres in 2004 across Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. A preliminary outlook this year shows above-normal fire potential in the Northwest.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked the Pentagon to free up some of the 1,500 Montana National Guard soldiers still on active duty because of the war in Iraq. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he couldn’t do that, but he promised help from other states if Schweitzer requests it.

U.S. operations in Iraq have stripped Montana of its 12 UH-60 Black Hawks, which played critical roles in 2003 when wildfires in Montana burned more than 736,800 acres. This year, 10 Black Hawks remain in the Middle East and two are set to return but must undergo inspection and maintenance.

The helicopters in the past were dispatched with 600-gallon buckets to drop water on fires, said Maj. Scott Smith, a Guard spokesman. A new option this year could be to use the Guard’s four CH-47 Chinook helicopters, each capable of carrying a 2,000-gallon water bucket – but first, flight engineers will have to be trained to serve on each four-person crew.

“It really is a matter of being prepared,” said Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who requested an assessment of National Guard resources available during the 2005 fire season.

The bulk of Oregon’s 8,000-plus soldiers have returned from overseas deployments. Its five Chinook helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan, but 12 Black Hawk helicopters could be readily available, said Capt. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

The state also launched a drought and fire Web site to serve as an information hub for the public, as well as for federal, state and local agencies to use in identifying water and fire conditions across Oregon.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in early March declared a drought emergency and ordered the National Guard to prepare for wildfire duty this summer. At her request, the Legislature passed a measure allowing the governor to activate the Guard so soldiers can be trained prior to deployment for emergencies such as wildfires.

When responding to wildfires, the Department of Natural Resource relies first on its own employees, seasonal firefighters and contract crews, as well as inmates from the Corrections Department, said Janet Pearce, a spokeswoman with the department in Washington.

“We’re feeling fairly confident that we have enough available resources,” she said. The National Guard would be used only when all other avenues are exhausted, and even then it would serve only a support role – setting up base camps and transporting firefighters.

Most of Washington’s 8,200 National Guardsmen will be available for state duty. However, the 81st Armor Brigade – with about 3,200 soldiers normally called to respond to state emergencies – has been trickling back from Iraq in recent months, and the state’s adjutant general has asked that it be the last deployed to fight fires.

“Our last resort would be to call upon the services of someone who recently returned from Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Clayton, a National Guard spokesman at Camp Murray.

Instead, the 96th Troop Command in Tacoma has been earmarked as the other “big muscle group” to use if needed during the wildfire season, Clayton said.

The 1,000-member group was identified during last year’s fire season, after the 81st was first deployed to Iraq.

The Guard for several weeks has been planning various stages of activation, from supplying limited transportation and logistics support to deploying soldiers to fight fires. It’s something they’ve done since the 1994 record fire season when 1,500 Guardsmen had to work on the fire lines, said Clayton.

“We’re hoping for a mild fire season,” he said. “We’re planning for it to be a robust fire season.”

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