Oregon National Guard troops and equipment will be available to help fight wildfires in Oregon this summer, but not to the degree that they have in the past.
With approximately 900 of Oregon’s 8,200 Oregon National Guard soldiers and five Chinook helicopters deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer soldiers will be available to help should state and federal fire suppression resources become depleted, said Major Lance Englet, the Salem-based military officer responsible for state use of National Guard assets.
“Could we sustain that level of mobility now? I don’t believe so, but the fact is that we do have the helicopters and personnel available and we’ve identified where the shortfalls are,” Englet said.
“We’re working with the other agencies to determine what we’ll have in state and what we’ll need to request from other states,” he said.
National Guard troops are trained by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to dig fire lines and put out hot spots after fires have been extinguished. Troops also provide transportation and bucket-equipped helicopters that can douse fires with water or retardant.
From 2001 to 2003, 3,433 National Guard soldiers were deployed to fight fires in Oregon. During the same period, 594 citizen soldiers were deployed overseas, said Englet. This year, those numbers will be reversed.
The shortfall recently made national headlines when Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked Pentagon officials to rotate National Guard troops and equipment back to the West to fight fires this summer.
The dry winter has left potential fuels like cheatgrass, ponderosa pine and other vegetation at lower than normal moisture levels, increasing the chances of early and fast-moving fires.
So far, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has not echoed Schweitzer’s plea, according to spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor. Governors have the power to declare a state of emergency and activate National Guard troops to fight fires or help in other disasters.
“We are taking into account that the National Guard, our front line on fire fighting, are deployed at higher rates than ever before, but we are starting to assess early because we don’t want citizens to be alarmed,” said Richter Taylor.
Oregon also has a reciprocity agreement for fire suppression resources with neighboring states, she said.
Agency officials closer to home said Oregon has ample resources to fight fires with or without the help of the National Guard.
“We plan for our fire seasons without depending on the National Guard resources,” said ODF’s Rod Nichols. “We know that they can be in military action, and so they’re not always a certainty for us.”
According to Nichols, the ODF is currently filling contracts for helicopters and heavy air tankers and recruiting seasonal fire fighters. The agency is not increasing the number of recruits to take the place of National Guard troops, said Nichols.
State and federal agencies will also contract with up to 300 20-person private firefighting crews, he said.
National Guard officials are still working to determine the number of troops and the equipment that will be available to fight fires this summer, Englet said.
According to Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the National Guard has pledged the use of Fire Hawk helicopters, Black Hawk helicopters that have been adapted for firefighting capabilities.
Rick Dice, owner of PatRick, a Redmond-based private wildland fire service provider, said it is too early to tell whether the National Guard will even be needed in addition to approximately 40,000 agency and private-sector firefighting personnel who will work this fire season.
“If you throw all those people together in one state, that’s quite a group of fire fighters,” Dice said. “To jump right out there and say we need the National Guard back from Iraq, that’s a crap shoot. We have no idea what the season is going to bring.”