Calif. National Guard joins firefighting effort

Calif. National Guard joins firefighting effort

11 July 2008

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USA — Sweat rolled down Lisa Mirander’s forehead as she hacked a tangle of saplings and brush down to bare dirt to prevent a wildfire from spreading. It was a tough job, but no harder than the 13 months she served in Afghanistan.

California’s wildfire season has become so severe so swiftly that for the first time in more than 30 years, National Guard troops have been deployed to fight the flames on the ground. Many are arriving at the fire line just after returning from combat zones.

For Mirander, the two jobs share some similarities.

In combat, she said, “you worried about the bullets. Here, you got the fire.”

The Guard is stepping in as crews across the state struggle to contain hundreds of lightning-sparked fires that have burned more than 1,000 square miles and destroyed nearly 100 homes in the last three weeks.

Mirander, a 27-year-old student, left behind her husband and a 7-year-old stepson in Riverside to spend one month working 12-hour days battling the flames.

“It’s pretty awesome,” she said of working alongside other troops. “We really stand by each other.”

The first wave of 200 troops took their places Wednesday, providing “a breath of fresh air” to firefighting crews on the ground, said Dan Burns, an assistant fire chief who was helping integrate the Guard into the firefighting effort.

“It’ll really relieve a lot of pressure out there,” Burns said. “The state got hit by so many fires at once — we couldn’t staff them all.”

Because this fire season started so early, the firefighting conditions have been among the worst in memory, even among longtime crews, said Terence McHale, policy director for CDF Firefighters of Cal Fire, the union representing the firefighters.

“We have firefighters who’ve been working nonstop since mid-May, who haven’t seen their families or homes, who are working 24-hour shifts, 21 days on, sometimes putting in 36 hours in the initial attack of a fire,” McHale said. “It’s an incredible challenge.”

By Thursday, about 1,460 fires had been contained, but more than 320 were still active. For instance, in Butte County, north of Sacramento, more than 50 homes have been destroyed, and another 4,000 are threatened. The flames forced 10,000 residents to evacuate.

Firefighters on Thursday positioned themselves on the banks of the Feather River opposite the town of Paradise, preparing for a wind change. The winds expected Friday morning are similar to ones that caused the damaging flare-up Monday night.

“They’re monitoring that fire and trying to keep it on the east side so it doesn’t cross over to the west bank” and reach the town, said Tobie Edmonds, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Lloyd Knifong, who has lived in Paradise since 1960, was preparing to spend a sleepless night with his 20-year-old son Kyle, defending their home and several others lined on two sides by 70-foot pine trees. A fire engine was parked nearby and sprinklers were jerry-rigged to roofs.

“When we see it coming, I’m going to empty my pool and get everything nice and wet. Then we’ll leave,” he said.

Along the scenic Big Sur coast, 27 homes and 31 other structures have burned in a fire that has consumed 140 square miles.

Farther south, a separate blaze in the Santa Ynez Mountains had blackened more than 15 square miles and was 75 percent contained. And at the southern tip of Sequoia National Forest, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, a 54-square-mile blaze was almost a third contained.

Strong winds gusting up to 50 mph also spread wildfires in Washington state, and more than 200 residents were evacuated from the suburban Spokane Valley. Fast-moving flames burned at least four homes there, Gov. Chris Gregoire said. Officials said heavy smoke and tree cover made it difficult to assess the damage from the wildfire, which broke out Thursday afternoon and grew to nearly 2 square miles.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the National Guard to the front lines and expects to call up more troops. On Thursday, he requested more resources from President Bush, and officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said they were reviewing the request.

“We now face extremely high temperatures and increased fuel loads that are exacerbating fire conditions and putting our communities and firefighters and other first responders at risk,” the governor wrote. “We sit at a critical tipping point in California that requires immediate federal help.”

Conditions are expected to worsen, with a continuing heat wave and more lightning storms forecast the rest of the week, Schwarzenegger said.

Fire officials who trained the Guard members were impressed by the morale of the troops as they prepared to face wildfires for the first time.

“It feels good — not that it didn’t feel good to serve in Iraq. It really feels good to be helping out at home,” said Jacques Lewis, 51, a postal worker in San Francisco who spent a year in Iraq training soldiers on safety around nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

About half of the approximately 35 troops training for the wildfires had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, said state fire Capt. Walter Williams, who led the training.

But even for troops with combat experience, fighting fires is new, Williams said.

They must learn how flames can double back, leap over trenches and surprise even experienced firefighters. They also have to figure out how and where to dig, and how to feed out a fire hose. And they must get accustomed to hard labor in temperatures that peak around 110 degrees.

“We’re going to find out how much stamina we all have,” Williams said.

Because the troops are new to the task, instructors are careful to keep them safe and drinking plenty of water.

They won’t carry chain saws and will only work alongside more experienced firefighters, Burns said.

“This is the first time, but I can see this as the future — utilizing the National Guard when our resources are tapped out,” he said.

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