CAMP ROBERTS, Calif. — It’s early, but the California Army National Guard's response to the 2018 wildfire season falls in line with the National Guard’s motto of “Always Ready, Always There.”
More than 500 troops from Cal Guard’s 144th Field Artillery Battalion, 100th Troop Command, 40th Infantry Division, started preparing for ground operations recently, one of the earliest call ups for field crews, according to John Winder, military asset coordinator of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).
“We’re getting them up and running earlier than previous years simply because our current assets are being utilized at a faster pace,” Winder explained. “It doesn’t mean we’re having a lot more wildfires. It just means we’re getting more prepared.”
Ground operations — Guard members are utilized behind front lines at burned sites to prevent future flare ups — coincide with Cal Guard’s air assets which are already in play. Briefly, a Cal Guard military police unit deployed to the Klamathon Fire in Siskiyou County, near the California-Oregon border, to assist law enforcement as residents were evacuated. A Cal Guard engineer company also set up temporary floating bridge, allowing CAL FIRE quicker access to a Northern California wildfire.
And now the field artillerymen are called upon for support. They’ll trade their regular occupational skills for a different type of battle. The 144th is trained by CAL FIRE personnel who in turn equipped the Soldiers with firefighting protective gear. The troops will go through a series of training to locate “hot spots,” or small fires that are still smoldering underneath trees and vegetation, and properly extinguish them.
“We call it mopping up, or mop operations, and it’s a critical factor to prevent further escalation of wildfires,” Winder added. “It’s an important process to control and contain areas that have burned. We learned a long time ago that re-fires can occur even after a while of abandonedness.”
Hundreds of troops will be equipped with special firefighting tools. Others will serve as drivers, fuelers, and key assets to make the mission successful.
“We have a lot of veterans who were here last year and previously,” said 144th Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Corella. “We also have a few rookies who are going to make this mission interesting.”
Corella said the Soldiers would have been performing annual training, their yearly requirement, had they not been called upon for fire support.
Winder explained that Cal Guard’s ground support usually gets the call in August when other assets have filled their responsibilities. To be notified in July is early but not that unusual, Winder said.
“CAL FIRE and Cal Guard have established a working relationship for many, many years,” he added. “We’re counting on the Soldiers once again to step up and support our operation of keeping California safe.”
California’s worst fire season occurred last year, per CAL FIRE statistics. The October Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County is the most destructive overall, resulting in 22 deaths and more than 5,600 structures (homes, buildings, etc.) burned to ashes. The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara last December consumed more than 281,000 acres, making it the largest fire in state history.
Eight of California’s Top 20 most destructive wildfires occurred in the past five years, per CAL FIRE. And since 2010, six wildfires have each eaten more than 132,000 acres, placing them in California’s Top 20 largest wildfires.