Risk of Wildfires Forces Military to Alter Training

Risk of Wildfires Forces Military to Alter Training

09 September 2011

published by www.nytimes.com

USA — Camp Swift, a training area for Texas soldiers, lies several miles north of the area charred this week by the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. But 1,500 acres of the camp burned in a different fire last month, after a soldier used a grenade simulator in an unauthorized place.

“This stuff went up like a Roman candle,” said Col. Robert Crow, the commander of the training centers for the Texas Army National Guard, as he gestured toward dead pine trees.

As the worst one-year drought in Texas history wears on, officials at Camp Swift and other military installations around the state are figuring out how to keep training while reducing fire risks.

Some large blazes have begun this year on firing ranges, including a 3,700-acre one that started last week and is now mostly contained at Fort Hood (in total about 14,000 acres have burned on the base’s range since June, officials say). At Camp Bowie, a Texas Army National Guard training site roughly 150 miles northwest of Austin, tracer fire sparked a 4,000-acre blaze this spring.

Billy Rhoads, the fire chief at Fort Hood, estimated that more than 50 fires had occurred since the drought began, “and I may be low on that,” he added.

The tinderbox conditions seem likely to continue. La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that experts blame for the drought, has returned and is expected to persist into the winter.

The military is making adjustments. In May, Colonel Crow banned the use of tracer ammunition at all Texas Army National Guard camps. (Other military personnel also train at these camps.) Tracers, which are normally fired every fifth round, are phosphorous-tipped, allowing the trajectory to be a visible red streak, but they are also highly flammable.

Colonel Crow has also banned most pyrotechnics, including smoke grenades and artillery simulators. The areas where soldiers are allowed to smoke cigarettes have shrunk as well.

In past years, devices like smoke grenades did not generally cause issues, the colonel said, but “now they’re just as culpable to start a fire as a lit match.”

Mr. Rhoads said that at Fort Hood the “use of pyrotechnics and incendiary-type ammunition has been halted.” Sometimes helicopters have also “pre-soaked” parts of the base before an exercise, he said, and other firefighting equipment may be pre-positioned.

Military officials say the modifications will not hamper training and readiness. Colonel Crow, speaking at Camp Swift, said that some training already involved indoor simulators, which do not pose a fire risk.

At Fort Hood, “they just rotate the training schedule,” said Christopher Haug Sr., a spokesman for the base, so that soldiers do different types of exercises during the dry conditions.

But even with the best preparations, things can go awry. A few weeks ago, regular ammunition started a small blaze at Camp Bowie because sparks can fly when bullets hit the limestone rocks.

No tracers were involved, Colonel Crow said, but “we still had a fire.”

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