SEATTLE — The Northwest faces what could be one of its worst wildfire seasons in years, but military duty in Iraq means forestry officials might not be able to call on their states’ National Guard units as much as they’d like.
Wildland fires burned more than 155,000 acres in 2004 across Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and this year a preliminary outlook shows above-normal fire potential in the region because of a run of unusually dry weather.
“The Pacific Northwest, including northern Idaho and western Montana, has pretty serious water and fuel issues, so the folks in those states are being wise to look at preplanning,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has already asked the Pentagon to free up some of his state’s 1,500 National Guard soldiers still on active duty because of the war. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he couldn’t do that, but he promised help from other states if Schweitzer asks for it.
U.S. operations in Iraq have stripped Montana of its 12 UH-60 Blackhawks, which played critical roles in 2003 when wildfires in Montana burned more than 736,800 acres.
The Blackhawks in the past were fitted with 600-gallon buckets to drop water on fires, said Maj. Scott Smith, a guard spokesman. An option this year could be to use the guard’s four CH-47 Chinook helicopters, capable of carrying 2,000-gallon buckets — but first, flight engineers will have to be trained to serve on each four-person crew.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has asked for an assessment of National Guard resources that will be available during the 2005 fire season.
“It really is a matter of being prepared,” said Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Kulongoski.
The bulk of Oregon’s 8,000-plus National Guard soldiers have returned from overseas deployments. Its five Chinook helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan, but 12 Blackhawk helicopters could be readily available, said Capt. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.
Most of Washington’s 8,200 National Guardsmen will be available. However, the 81st Armor Brigade — with about 3,200 soldiers normally called to respond to state emergencies — has been trickling back from Iraq and the state’s adjutant general has asked that it be the last deployed to fight fires.
“Our last resort would be to call upon the services of someone who recently returned from Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Clayton, a National Guard spokesman at Camp Murray.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire already has declared an official drought emergency and ordered the National Guard to prepare for battling wildfires this summer. At her request, the Legislature passed a measure allowing the governor to activate the guard for firefighting training.
Washington’s Department of Natural Resource relies first on its own employees, seasonal firefighters and contract crews, as well as inmates from the Corrections Department, said Janet Pearce, a spokeswoman for the department.
“We’re feeling fairly confident that we have enough available resources,” she said. The National Guard would be used only when all other avenues are exhausted, and even then would serve only a support role — setting up base camps and transporting firefighters.
The Washington National Guard is already planning various stages of activation, from supplying limited transportation and logistics support to assigning soldiers to firefighting. It’s something they’ve done since the record 1994 fire season when 1,500 guardsmen had to work on the fire lines, said Clayton.
“We’re hoping for a mild fire season. We’re planning for it to be a robust fire season,” he said.