August 12, 2015 – EEL RIVER CONSERVATION CAMP, Calif. – Once again the California National Guard extended a helping hand to assist in a battle against wildfires, an ongoing enemy.
More than 300 troops with the Cal Guard’s Task Force Alpha began mop-up missions on the Humboldt Lightning Fire on Aug. 6 in Northern California’s Humboldt County. In the first three days, Task Force Alpha helped quell hundreds of hot spots and covered nearly a dozen miles of ground.
The term “ground” doesn’t mean golf course type terrain, said Sgt. Maj. Tom Dalton, TF Alpha sergeant major and 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion sergeant major. It means steep, unforgiving land stripped of vegetation by the fire and covered in ash so fine it resembles baby powder, he said.
“Some terrain, I feel like asking for rappelling gear,” said Dalton, whose 578th hails from Manhattan Beach, sunny Southern California. “There’s land up there that’s very difficult to get to. But this task force is very motivated. It’s difficult, but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.”
The Humboldt Lightning Fire has nearly 2,000 fire personnel committed to it, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) website. More than 140 fire engines, including assets from Nevada, Arizona and Oregon, have been disbursed to different parts of the fire. Two dozen bulldozers are also helping with containment.
Task Force Alpha – later joined by Task Force Charlie from the Rocky Fire – has a primary mission. It must traverse burnt areas and put out existing small fires that are usually found underground. Soldiers draped in protective fire gear are armed with picks, shovels and other firefighting tools. They dig up dirt, uproot roots, remove stumps, or simply find the cause of these hot spots.
Once found, fires are extinguished.
“Mopping up is just as important as fighting the fire. If there’s no mop up, another fire can kick off,” said 1st Sgt. Damon Oliver, first sergeant, Alpha Company, 578th and Task Force Alpha first sergeant. “The other day six small fires came up. The Soldiers were really proud when they put them out.”
They face the elements, such as the sun’s heat, as well as the uneven terrain, but also unforeseen factors such as potential falling trees. The Soldiers work in crews, up to 20 per team, and walk close together to ensure sufficient visibility with each other.
“The training we got at Camp Roberts helped these guys with this mission,” said Dalton. “They’re supported by a CAL FIRE rep who has done this before. Every mission they go on, a CAL FIRE person is with them.”
The majority of the task force is fighting a California wildfire for the first time, Oliver explained. Most of the unit consists of 578th Soldiers as well as others from the 1-18th Cavalry Regiment headquartered in Azusa, California.
“I know without a doubt they’re motivated to be out there. They know the importance of this job,” Oliver said. “There are things that are challenging. There’s terrain that’s no joke. But this task force has a great group of Soldiers. They want to be here to help.”
“Let me tell you, this is one of the best groups of Guardsmen I have worked with,” said Justin Karp, CAL FIRE engineer and assistant military liaison. “They do their jobs very well. They’re always motivated, always asking to do more.”
The Humboldt Lightning Fire devastated nearly 5,000 acres from July 30 to Aug. 10. Although not as disastrous as the Rocky Fire, which leveled nearly 70,000 acres in Northern California, the Humboldt blaze threatens more homes, buildings and structures.
Early in the mission, two teams, according to Oliver, were assigned to a separate area with an equally important job. Close to three dozen troops had to collect fire hoses stretched out to various hills and mountaintops. CAL FIRE used these hoses to battle fires, and they’re no longer needed.
“This was amazing. They pulled about 50,000 feet of hoses,” Oliver said. “They knocked this out in less than two days.”
The ground crews represent one of several California National Guard assets assisting CAL FIRE in 2015’s fire season.
The Guard provides aerial support with CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that have been constantly dropping water on the fires. The Rocky Fire saw the Guard’s C-130J airtankers, equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS), drop retardant. A 30-member unit from the California Guard’s 132nd Multirole Bridge Company erected a temporary bridge to enable heavy CAL FIRE vehicles and equipment quick and easy access to the Rocky Fire. Other support assets, such as fuelers, transportation and administration, have also joined the fight.
“Responding to state emergencies is what distinguishes the National Guard from the rest of the armed forces,” said Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California’s adjutant general. “Whether it’s wildfires or people in distress, California Guard members train year-round with CAL FIRE and the California Office of Emergency Services to ensure we’re ready to respond when our neighbors need us most.”
Almost 4,400 fires have flared up in California so far this year, per CAL FIRE’s website. Close to 120,000 acres have burned. Last year there were just over 3,000 fires.