U.S. Army North supports wildfire fighting efforts

By Patti Bielling | U.S. Army North Public Affairs | August 24, 2006

When all the nation’s wildland firefighting ground crews have been committed, the National Interagency Fire Center turns to the military.

This year, the Army got the call, and U.S. Army North deployed a small element of personnel to NIFC in Boise, Idaho, to help manage military ground support.

The mission of the command’s Defense Coordinating Element is to oversee the efforts of Task Force Blaze, a 550-Soldier unit from Fort Lewis, Wash., that deployed Aug. 14 to fight the Tripod Complex fire near Winthrop, Wash.

Based in Seattle, Wash., the Defense Coordinating Element includes a deputy commander, two operations officers and a noncommissioned officer from Seattle. During deployment, the DCE is augmented as needed by staff from the Army North headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

When in Seattle, element personnel serve as permanent military liaisons to local, state and regional emergency preparedness experts in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. Once called to Boise, the team began working for Col. Dave Hall, who is serving as the Defense Coordinating Officer to the fire center.

Military units are always the last in and first out during civil support missions, Hall explained.

“(Military assets) are there to augment civilian firefighting capability – we’re never in charge of the incident,” Hall said. “To the extent that we’re required, we’ll be there. The minute we’re not required, we’re gone.”

The element has a lot of experience in Steve O’Brien, an operations officer who comes from a family of foresters. Firefighting tactics may seem familiar to members of the military, he said.

“The fire has flanks, and firefighters use trenches, pincer movements and try to outmaneuver and envelop the fire,” he said. “The ground force is just one side of it – we have engines, helicopter attack and smoke jumpers (air drop firefighters), so it’s very similar to a military operation.”

This is the first year since 2003 that the fire center has requested a military battalion. However, National Guard aircraft have been employed as air tankers nearly every year. Since June 2006, National Guard tankers have completed more than 300 retardant drops on wildfires.

John Bruce, an operations augmentee from U.S. Army North headquarters, said that working at the fire center has been a tremendous learning experience.

“It’s not just throwing water on a fire,” he said. “The logistics that go into fighting the fire and the planning that (the incident commander and staff) conduct every night for the next day is very intensive. It’s as thorough as any war-gaming I’ve seen in the Army.”

The Tripod Complex fire has burned nearly 200 square miles of forest since it was sparked by lightning in July. As of Aug. 24, the fire was about 40 percent contained.

Task Force Blaze and the defense coordinating element are scheduled to support wildfire fighting efforts for up to 30 days.