Military personnel called in to fight wildfires across West

Sep 7, 2017, 3:17 PM | Updated: 5:04 pm

The Washington National Guard has arrived at the Jolly Mountain Fire that’s raging north of Cle Elum.

Nearly 130 soldiers and 50 trucks have joined the 800-fire crew members already battling the 24,000 acre fire that is just 5 percent contained.

Nearly 5,000 structures are in danger. Many of them have already been evacuated and folks living near the Suncadia Resort are warned to be on high alert as the fire closes in.

In all, Washington state has eight active wildfires contributing to the haze that blocked out the sunlight this week.

But, we’re getting off easy compared with our neighbors. Altogether there are about 1.5 million acres burning in the West, from California and Nevada up through Oregon and Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 28,000 firefighter personnel are battling the flames.

On a National Preparedness Scale of 1 to 5, the West is currently at a level 5, indicating intense wildfire activity and a high level of commitment to get all the assets needed to contain the fires.

Washington, Oregon, and Montana have already activated National Guard personnel and aircraft to assist with fire suppression. After reaching out to the Defense Department, fire managers will also soon have the assistance of active duty military personnel.

The 1st and 2nd Stryker Brigades out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord have been called up to assist with the firefighting effort. About 200 personnel are getting a crash course on wildland firefighting that started Wednesday before they head out to Oregon this weekend. The soldiers will be assigned to work the 38,000 acre Upqua North Complex east of Roseburg, Oregon.

It’s been two years since the last time active duty military personnel were mobilized to serve as wildland firefighters. In Aug. 2015, 200 soldiers from JBLM worked the wildfires in Washington for 30 days.

In Montana, there are 21 major wildfires burning on about a half-million acres. It’s hard to understand the scale of the devastation with so many fires growing and burning out of control.

On Monday, there was a crowded public meeting where fire managers delivered a report on the Caribou and Gibralter Ridge Fires near the city of Eureka, MT. Residents were frustrated that the fires weren’t put out at their infancy. But firefighters explained that there is so much fire activity, they only have a fraction of the personnel they’ve requested.

Another problem is the smoke masking new wildfires. One lightning-sparked fire had been burning for three days without anyone noticing. It took a surveillance aircraft flying over the area to take notice and report the blaze. By that time, it was already at 40 acres and growing.

A father of six who lost his home to the Montana fires cried as he addressed the auditorium. He said he was grateful his family was safe and appreciated the hard work of the firefighters still in the middle of their battle. He also urged his neighbors to stop placing blame.

“It’s easy to point fingers,” he said. “Be a good neighbor. That’s what it’s going to take right now.”

To that, there was immediate applause from the hundreds of people who were still wondering whether their homes would be the next to burn.

Ron and Don

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Military personnel called in to fight wildfires across West