CAMP MURRAY, Wash. - It's quickly becoming a summer tradition for the Washington National Guard and not the right kind. Since 2014 more than 4,500 Guardsmen have been called from their homes and civilian jobs to respond to one of our state's biggest threats, blazing wildfires that threaten lives and property across our state.
"From 2001 to 2013 we only saw a few activations for wildfires, now it is every year," said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general. "We are routinely training for fire season now."
In 2013, Washington National Guard leaders identified the need for more Soldiers and Airmen to be ready to respond to wildfires. That summer more than 800 Guardsmen took part in Evergreen Ember, a wildfire training exercise. During the practice, several Guardsmen earned their Red Card certification, as well as trained with many fire districts from across the state to build relationships and familiarization with the mission.
"Aviators are generally the first to be called in to assist with fires and begin their training around February each year with the DNR aviators," said Col. Kevin McMahan, Director of Operations for the Joint Operations Center. "They do classroom training and practice bucket drop operations with DNR and receive a certification."
Last summer all parts of Washington were covered with smoke and ash from wildfires, causing respiratory issues and decreased visibility for flights. The Washington National Guard was called in to assist the Department of Natural Resources.
"Around 200 Guardsmen get Red Card certified, so they are prepared to work on one of the ten hand crews that Washington National Guard is required to provide," said McMahan. "These individuals are identified by either the Army or Air Guard, each of which must provide five hand crews."
Hand crews are made up of 20 Guardsmen that are Red Card certified. The Red Card certification is a 40-hour block and completes the requirements to be out on the fire line. Guardsmen have become valuable members out on the fire lines, and often the crew bosses will fight to have them on their teams.
"I've been told that they work harder and cut fire lines faster. They are very sought after by the crew bosses when they arrive at a fire camp," said McMahan.
Certification isn't the only thing the Guard has been working with DNR on to be prepared. They've been working with their sustainment office to have caches of equipment staged for needs.
"This year with DNR we were able to forecast sizes and equipment so we could preposition equipment," said McMahan. "This way we don't have to wait for DNR to open their warehouse."
These steps toward preparedness that the state has made streamlines the process for wildfire season. This way Guardsmen are prepared and ready when the time comes.