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W.Va. Guardsman uses unique training to save neighbor's home

By Edwin Wriston | West Virginia National Guard | Nov. 24, 2020

WINCHESTER, Va. – Sitting in their home on a blustery evening Nov. 19, West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) 1st Sgt. John Russell and his wife were enjoying a relaxing night of television.

"As we were enjoying our show, suddenly, our power went out and we found ourselves in the dark," said Russell. "Through the window, my wife saw a flickering orange light and exclaimed, 'There's a fire!'"

The high winds had felled a tree near his rural home, causing it to sever multiple power lines. Those live lines fell into dry underbrush, igniting a bright and powerful fire.

Russell, a 14-year member of the Guard, was uniquely prepared for the situation. His unit, the 249th Army Band based in Wheeling, West Virginia, had undergone basic wildland firefighting training with the West Virginia Division of Forestry (WVDOF) in October 2019. The training was part of a partnership to enable Guard members to supplement WVDOF personnel in the event of large-scale wildland fires in West Virginia.

As his wife called 911, Russell jumped in his vehicle to assess the situation.

"The wind kept feeding the fire, and it started to spread quickly," said Russell. "With the lack of rain, everything was dry and brittle. The fire was headed straight up the hill towards my neighbor's house. Everything from our unit training came flooding back to me, and I realized I needed to get involved immediately."

Russell assumed control of the scene as his training took over. Directing another neighbor who had shown up to warn the threatened neighbor, he rushed back to his home to grab tools to help fight the expanding fire. Arriving back on the scene with rakes and other garden tools, Russell instructed the neighbor and homeowner how to construct a fire line, helping them dig out a line 3 feet to 6 feet wide, down to the dirt, to isolate and starve the fire of new fuel sources. Soon, two firemen arrived with proper wildland fire rakes, and Russell directed them to the wood line closest to the home.

"The fire had started creeping its way over into a brushier area and more severe raking was needed to clear debris," Russell said. "Embers were blowing everywhere and the smoke from the fire was thick and heavy. The firefighters, of course, had the proper fire rakes with sharp, serrated triangular steel blades and were able to easily attack the heavy debris and underbrush to clear a good line."

Soon, the rest of the fire department arrived, the power company was able to shut off the still sparking downed lines, and the neighbor's home was safe from potential catastrophe.

Russell credits his training gained through the partnership between the WVNG and the WVDOF as the critical factor in helping secure and save his neighbor's home.

"The training covered in the basic wildland firefighting class included understanding fire behavior, suppression tactics and techniques, crew organization, communications, and crew safety and awareness. I was able to employ and utilize knowledge gained through the course in each of these factors leading to a successful night."

While his normal Guard duties include performing with his bandmates at retirements, promotions and other public engagements, Russell is thankful to gain additional knowledge and training outside his 42R military occupation specialty (MOS).

"I have experienced quite a few beneficial and great things while being in the WVNG. Education, a second career, access to affordable health care, amazing people, comradery, and unforgettable experiences," he said. "But the best parts I am leaning towards right now are learning the additional skills and trades you don't get trained in on the civilian side unless it's your job. The National Guard can provide a hands-on approach through multiple areas of training, and then in return, you can utilize what you have been trained for in your community when they are needed the most."

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