America Is at War With Fire

The U.S. military helps battle massive blazes in the West

America Is at War With Fire America Is at War With Fire
The American West is burning. An unusually hot and dry summer led to widespread drought and turned the forests and plains into kindling. Now... America Is at War With Fire

The American West is burning. An unusually hot and dry summer led to widespread drought and turned the forests and plains into kindling.

Now massive wildfires rage from California to as far north as Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula near the Canadian border and all the way across to the Northern Rockies. Smoke and haze fill the air, darkening what would usually be crystal clear skies.

As of Aug. 24 the National Interagency Fire Center reports there are 72 large fires in the United States consuming 1,641,777 acres. There are currently 27,000 people working around the clock to stop the fires. Close to a thousand of them are soldiers.

As the fires get worse, the U.S. military is calling up more troops and playing a bigger role.

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The Cougar Creek fire in Washington state seen from an Army Black Hawk. Chief Warrant Officer Eric Swenson photo

On Aug. 19, officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington announced that 200 members of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade would join civilian firefighters and National Guardsmen already battling the blaze.

On the same day, civilian firefighters Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died when their vehicle became trapped close to an inferno near the town of Twisp, Washington.

Fighting wildfires is usually a job for the U.S. Forest Service, which relies on trained wilderness crews — some of them seasonal workers. But during particularly bad years, it’s not uncommon for the National Guard to step in to provide helicopters and sometimes ground troops. This is the first time since 2006 that active duty troops have joined one of these efforts.

California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana currently have the worst of it. Idaho alone has 17 fires. The intensity has prompted other National Guard formations from other states — some incredibly far away — to lend resources to their beleaguered comrades in the West.

Aircraft from Colorado, Minnesota and Wyoming have joined local aircrews. They fly a mix of helicopters and fixed-wing planes loaded with water and chemicals.

In California, there are four MAFFS C-130 Airtankers assigned to McClellan Airfield in Sacramento and two assigned to the Channel Islands. Two of the planes came from the the 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs, one from the 153rd Airlift Wing in Wyoming and one from the 145th Airlift Wing in North Carolina.

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A MAFFS C-130 drops flame retardant chemicals on the Black Crater fire in California. Department of Defense photo

The MAFFS — Modular Airborne FireFighting System — is one of the military’s most potent firefighting tools. Commissioned by Congress after the 1970 Laguna Fire overwhelmed civil resources, the MAFFS turns huge C-130 transport planes into firefighting juggernauts.

The planes carry massive tanks full of fire retardant liquid which is dumped onto blazes below. The latest version of MAFFS can carry as much as 3,400 U.S. gallons. The Department of Natural Resources is also calling on civilian companies to provide planes and helicopters to drop water and chemicals, often at extremely low altitude.

All of this supports firefighters on the ground — supplemented by increasing numbers of soldiers — armed with hoses, axes and chainsaws. The goal is to cut down trees to contain the fires and stop them in their path. These fires can travel at frighteningly high speeds. Changes in the wind can make them unpredictable and dangerous.

“We’ve been expecting another devastating wildfire season and have had our personnel and equipment ready so we can get them out the door the moment we’re asked for help,” said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the Washington National Guard’s top officer. “We’ve trained extensively for these types of missions and will continue to provide support for as long as needed and requested.”

The effort has become international. Firefighters from Australia and New Zealand are en route to Idaho while Canadian crews and aircraft take part in operations in the Northern Rockies.

The fires have burned hundreds of homes and businesses, proving both economically and ecologically devastating to rural communities. As the hot summer sun beats down on firefighters and nervous property owners, many westerners are hoping for an early fall and the return of pouring rain.

But authorities are planning for several more weeks of intense firefighting with more U.S. troops called up to help.

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