Soldiers Battle Wildfires

By Patti Bielling


PFC Luke Schneider of the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, is one of 550 Soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash., helping civilian firefighters fight blazes in Washington state.

SPC Abel TrevinoSoldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash., are helping protect nearly 500 homes and other structures in Washington state as the Cedar Creek Fire burns near the town of Mazama.

Members of Task Force Blaze were assigned this week to help contain the 1,000-acre fire, which broke out Aug. 22.

The 550-Soldier contingent arrived in the area Aug. 17 and has been battling the aggressive Tripod Complex fire in north-central Washington, which has blackened more than 225 square miles.

Soldiers are working side by side with civilian firefighters to clear brush around structures, and have been trained to install pumps and sprinklers in case those systems are needed to protect structures.

Civilian helicopters are dousing the fire with water to slow its advance while the crews build the firelines, said Dave Schmitt, a fire information officer for the interagency team managing the incident.

“High elevations, very steep topography, and a lot of downed timbers make it unsafe to put ground crews in a direct attack,” Schmitt said. “We're using bucket drops on firelines to check the fire's advance and, should the fire start to run, we'll be able to use constructed lines for burnout operations if necessary.”

Burnout operations are used to remove fuels in front of a fire to stop its advance.

The Soldiers say the mission is rewarding.

“It’s a good way to help my country,” said SPC Brandon Waquiu of the 62nd Chemical Company. “It feels great to be here and doing something I never thought I’d do — firefighting. It’s good experience and something I’ll take with me everywhere I go.”

Task Force Blaze includes Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment; 23rd Chem. Bn.; 5th Bn., 5th Air Defense Artillery Regt.; 4th Bn., 6th Avn. Regt.; 29th Signal Bn. and the 28th Public Affairs Detachment.

The Task Force is the only active-duty unit currently performing a wildland firefighting ground mission and may be deployed for up to 30 days. The last time a military battalion was employed to fight wildfires was in 2003 in the Lolo National Forest of Montana.

Operational control of the battalion rests with U.S. Army North, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the Army component of U.S. Northern Command. The command provides defense support of civil authorities when requested and approved by the secretary of defense