NORTHPORT, Wash. - Waiting at the dozer line, Staff Sgt. Eric Delaune said he could feel the heat 100 yards away. Then, there was a huge roar coming right at him – except it wasn't a plane, it was flames.
"That flame front that came toward us was 150- to 200-foot flames and sounded like a jet coming straight at us," said Delaune, of the 141st Maintenance Squadron. "They were calling evacuation orders over the radio for some of the other divisions that were further up, but we were able to hold our position and immediately after it burned we were able to get in there and clean it up and keep it from encroaching into the green."
Members of the Washington National Guard are on the front lines of the fires, actively engaging giant flames. For the past few years, Guard Soldiers and Airmen on the ground had been responsible for mop up and supporting activities. But with so many fires, Brig. Gen. Jeremy Horn, Washington Air National Guard commander, says that Soldiers and Airmen are needed for a direct attack, fighting the fire.
"The foresight that the Legislature had to provide funding to get our folks trained in the preseason is crucial to being able to respond like we did," Horn said, while in Eastern Washington, checking on members of the Guard. "Training our folks before the season hits is always an important point for us. There is always a need for our support, but by the time the Department of Natural Resources needs us, all their crews are engaged and are not able to take the time to train our folks."
The hand crews battle the fire by clearing out burnable materials in the fire's path. Using a variety of different hand tools, the Soldiers and Airmen clear a space in the forest down to bare dirt to deny the fire fuel to spread. The crews are also able to use hoses to attack smaller hot spots along the fire's line. With the crews being used for initial attack, they have been in the thick of fighting the fire from the beginning.
"We were right up close to the fire and we did get to see a pretty nasty flame front," Delaune said. "We were sitting at a dozer line and they were doing back-burning operations toward us. Our job was to hold the line as the fire came up toward us. We had to guard the unburnt zone and mop up any spot fires that popped up."
Many of the Soldiers are fighting what's being called the Sheep Creek Fire as it burns its way through the steep and densely wooded terrain of Eastern Washington, just 33 miles to the west of the Idaho border, five miles south of the Canada border, along the Columbia River, near the town of Northport.
The fire began July 30, and within 48 hours the first members of the WA National Guard were arriving on scene. It is not unusual for Washington Guard members to fight fires, but their quick response and actions on the fire make this notable.
By the nature of their service, Guardsmen have varied backgrounds, training and experience, but they all answered the call for support immediately and without hesitation.
"Most of the Guardsmen out here are drill status Guardsmen so they had to step away from their families, civilian jobs and regular responsibilities to support something they don't normally do, with very little notice." Horn said.
All Guardsmen on the fire are trained to fight the fires and some have been on fires in the past, but most do not fight fires on a regular basis in their civilian jobs or even their Guard jobs.
"We've got college students, electricians, security guards, personal trainers, all kinds of different jobs, but when they come out here they are able to quickly flip that switch and get to work," said Staff Sgt. Peter Schuldt, fire squad boss for the Washington Army National Guard.
The hot weather, difficult terrain, heavy loads of equipment and the physically demanding nature of the job can easily be described as difficult, by most anyone's standards. Despite all those factors the Airmen and Soldiers press on day after day because they feel what they are doing has a real impact.
"Everybody is feeling it by now," Schuldt said. "You can't do what we are doing and not feel it, but everyone's attitudes have been fantastic and spirits are high. If I was to say, 'Hey we are going to climb this steep hill for training' there would be unhappiness, but because there is a reason for it, they just accept it."
More than 350 people are contributing to the firefighting efforts at Sheep Creek and 102 of them are members of the Washington National Guard. Of the 12 hand crews that are directly engaging the fire, nearly half are Army or Air Guard crews.
The Department of Natural Resources, which runs the firefighting operations, recognizes and appreciates the Washington National Guard's contributions.
"Nationally, we are at a level five preparedness, which means we are short on resources across the country," said Andrew Stenbeck, Sheep Creek fire incident commander. "We could not have got the crews we needed, which would have extended the risk of this fire getting much larger. So, for the [National Guard crews] to come in and have us be able to use them as initial attack was huge. This is a type of fire that hand crews are critical to stopping it."
Stenbeck considers the Guard's involvement in firefighting operations to be a crucial necessity for the state to adequately battle the yearly fires.
"The [National Guard] training with us and working with us out on the fire line is a huge boost to our ability to fight fires and it benefits the citizens of the state of Washington, because we are here to protect life, property and natural resources, and that's an important mission," he said.
(Note: At the time of publishing the Sheep Creek Fire was at 458 acres and 30% containment. More information on the fire: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6088/)