From tactical to practical, military meets California’s needs

By Pfc. Brandon C. Pomrenke

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MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – When the call came in requesting federal help to combat the flames engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres in southern California, it was only a matter of time until the Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California National Guard sprang into action.

“This was a larger incident than California is used to, and there was a very quick response from the state,” said Army Warrant Officer Bill M. Heintz, assigned to the California National Guard Headquarters. “They couldn’t have reacted any faster than they did.”

Much of this quick reaction is due to constant practice and national level exercises. Without training, these kinds of major national disasters could have an even more devastating impact on the local communities involved.

“The state knows what’s going on and what it needs to do,” Heintz explained. “[The National Guard is] here to provide support and assets to help the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection do their job.”

One of the most important assets provided by the military is aviation resources. Some of these aerial assets are the Air Force U-2; the P-3 Global Hawk, an unmanned vehicle used for imagery collection; RC-26 planes with imagery equipment; and Chinook helicopters for the movement of personnel.

“We’re here to provide military assets and support, and we’re using these assets to give Cal Fire a picture of the battlefield,” explained Heintz.

Just having the ability to find the proper equipment does not always mean success. It takes practice and training to become skilled working with other agencies, especially when working with entities as large as the California National Guard, Joint Task Force Civil Support and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Deploying the right people to the right place is vital to the mission here.

“Our job is to place the right peg in the right hole to help fight these fires,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer Roberto Montoto, an intelligence specialist chief. “We’re working to provide just the right level of support and not get in the way of those fighting the fires.”

To provide that adequate level of support, the California National Guard, JTF-CS and Cal Fire have practiced responding to staged disasters at the state and federal levels.

“[Cal Fire and the California National Guard] know and understand each other’s protocols and assets through cross-training in the past,” said State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan. “There are preplanned units out there that are trained to support us and provide the department with the necessary assets and equipment. The National Guard has the ability to quickly fill in behind us here, especially with the aviation assets.”

By moving so quickly, the joint effort to fight the fires has gone smoothly. Units have rapidly deployed to hot spots and other locations where they're needed to help with evacuations or security needs. The original response, however, was the starting point for a successful mission.

“These guys are doing stuff not even in doctrine yet,” said Heintz. “They had to, in order to get everything done so fast.”

Once on the ground, every command post needed to find out exactly what was going on in their respective areas. To do this, leaders needed information and imagery to properly place units.

“To fight fires, people need information, “explained Montoto. “We get the requests here and answer questions that the incident managers need to be successful.”

Getting all the right units working together in such a large effort can be difficult, but well worth the effort. To ensure that everything goes smoothly, communication has been a key aspect. Much of this communication was also provided by the National Guard and the Air Force presence in the area.

"This is the first time the Air Force and our type of unit have stood up to work together ... and all the entities are working as such a tight cell," Dargan said. "It’s going stunningly.”