Marines, Sailors Join National Guard to Fight California Wildfires

 In U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy

Marines with Marine Wing Support Squadron 373, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, I Marine Expeditionary Force, conduct aircraft familiarization at an Interagency improvised helicopter airfield near Coleville, Calif., Sept. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Marines and sailors deployed over the week­end to the front­lines of multi-agency fire­fight­ing efforts on the Creek fire, which has con­sumed more than 122 square miles in cen­tral California.

The Marines and sailors assigned to 7th Engineer Support Battalion – about 250 per­son­nel in all, includ­ing about a dozen Navy hos­pi­tal corps­men – will form as hand crews with strike teams, each led by a wild­land fire­fight­er, for a deploy­ment of unknown length. They will join more than 3,100 per­son­nel fight­ing the Creek fire, which sparked Sept. 4 and has scorched 278,368 acres of mostly forest­ed land. The fire was only 27-per­cent con­tained as of Monday morn­ing, accord­ing to fire offi­cials.

The deploy­ment is the latest assign­ment of West Coast-based I Marine Expeditionary Force units to assist fed­er­al and state fire­fight­ers bat­tling dozens of blazes that were burn­ing across California and the West. These fires, which have already pro­duced some har­row­ing search and rescue efforts – such as one at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest north­east of Fresno – have come before the California fire season typ­i­cal­ly starts, lead­ing to wor­ries about the abil­i­ty to fight such a long season and rotate in and out qual­i­fied crews to help state and fed­er­al fire­fight­ing efforts.

Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force train to support the ongoing wildfire efforts in California. US Marine Corps Photo

Earlier this month, crash-fire-rescue teams with Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to sup­port the aerial fire­fight­ing mis­sion on the Slink fire, which spread onto train­ing areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Eastern Sierra moun­tains. Lightning sparked the fire Aug. 29, and it has since burned 26,752 acre but is expect­ed to be fully con­tained by Sept. 26.

U.S. Northern Command last month tasked U.S. Army North with over­see­ing mil­i­tary sup­port to the ground response in sup­port of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, which serves as the fed­er­al coor­di­na­tor for wild­land fire mis­sions. Two Army bat­tal­ions typ­i­cal­ly are tasked to sup­port if needed. Recently, ARNORTH deployed sol­diers with 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to the August Complex fire burn­ing in Mendocino National Forest in Northern California.

The Marines’ 7th Engineer Support Battalion got word a week ago that it was get­ting tasked to help wild­land fire­fight­ers.

“We’ve been prepar­ing for a few weeks now with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of having to sup­port this mis­sion,” Lt. Col. Melina Mesta, who com­mands the 1,300-member bat­tal­ion, said during a Friday media brief­ing.
“We had more folks vol­un­teer than spots avail­able,” she added.

Mesta said some bat­tal­ion mem­bers have rel­a­tives in the area, which includes the city of Fresno, “so it def­i­nite­ly hits close to home.”

“Our Marines and our sailors are used to deploy[ing] over­seas, whether it’s the Middle East or the Pacific,” she added. “So it really is an honor for us to be able to serve here at home, and espe­cial­ly to be able to pro­tect the people, prop­er­ty and public lands of California.”

The bat­tal­ion, part of 1st Marine Logistics Group based at Camp Pendleton, got tasked by I MEF for the mis­sion and has Marines skilled in a vari­ety of mis­sions includ­ing road clear­ing, bridg­ing, water pro­duc­tion, explo­sive ord­nance dis­pos­al and heavy equip­ment oper­a­tions.

“The train­ing is dif­fer­ent, but it does have some sim­i­lar­i­ties to what we do as Marines,” Mesta said. “It’s dif­fi­cult. It’s chal­leng­ing. But the (NIFC) cadre is here to make sure they are trained in all of the tech­niques that they need to be suc­cess­ful while they’re out there sup­port­ing this mis­sion. So I’m con­fi­dent that they’ll be able to do so.”

“They know this is going to be a lot of hard work in some very ardu­ous con­di­tions,” she said, noting “they are well suited for that. A lot of what they do as Marines, and not just as Marines but as engi­neers, is in sim­i­lar con­di­tions. So I think they are resilient and well pre­pared in that aspect.”

The bat­tal­ion mem­bers, led by offi­cer-in-charge Capt. Micah Tate, are assigned into 20-member strike teams. Each group has a senior leader – lieu­tenant, war­rant offi­cer or staff non­com­mis­sioned offi­cer – and a corps­man and is paired with an expe­ri­enced fire­fight­er, said Gunnery Sgt. Warren Peace.

At Camp Pendleton on Friday, the Marines and sailors donned issued, fire-retar­dant uni­forms – yellow shirts, green trousers and tan boots – along with red hard­hats and blue back­packs stocked with per­son­al safety gear and equip­ment. “They’ll have those with them at all times,” said Nicole Wieman, a U.S. Army North spokes­woman.

Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force train to support the ongoing wildfire efforts in California. US Marine Corps Photo

The famil­iar­iza­tion train­ing includ­ing the deploy­ment of the fire shel­ter, which for the Marines and sailors was a green or orange prac­tice shel­ter, about the size of a large sleep­ing bag. Additional gear, includ­ing actual fire shel­ters, is issued once they arrive at the fire base camps and get more on-the-job train­ing, like how to swing a tool like a Pulaski, and how deep to dig, in areas already burned through, said Nate Budd, a Bureau of Land Management facil­i­ties main­te­nance super­vi­sor at NIFC. They split up into small­er groups for a series of base­line knowl­edge on fuels and haz­ards and prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion lessons led by instruc­tors from fire­fight­ing agen­cies.

One group of about 50 lis­tened as Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service instruc­tors guided them through the safety gear and shel­ter deploy­ment. While many fire­fight­ers never deploy their fire shel­ter, the like­li­hood “is minus­cule, but we have to train for just in case,” one instruc­tor reas­sured them.

“If you’re going to be a shel­ter, you’re going to want to have your face really low to the ground,” he said. “Because what kills people in a burnover is rarely ever the heat on your skin. It’s that you get up and you breathe in super-heated air and it dries the tis­sues in your lungs. That’s what kills people, is actu­al­ly asphyx­i­a­tion.” So the best bet, the instruc­tor offered, is to stay prone and low along the ground for the clean­est and cooler air. A face mask, such as ones they carry to pro­tect against COVID-19 dis­ease, can read­i­ly help keep them from breath­ing in dirt in such sit­u­a­tions.

Budd told them about one fire­fight­er who used a multi-tool he had on him to dig a hole to get more clean air. “He said the dif­fer­ence was night and day. … It was nice and cool and it was clear air, so carry some sort of tool with you,” he said.

Battalion mem­bers will be assigned as hand crews. “We don’t know what the assign­ment is yet,” said Budd, a trained fire­fight­er and emer­gency med­ical tech­ni­cian and a strike team leader who will accom­pa­ny the Marines and sailors. It will be his first time work­ing with Marines and sailors.

“These guys already have it ingrained. They bring a level of just matu­ri­ty already than what I’m used to seeing with rook­ies,” he said, “and they’re pretty well dis­ci­plined. Generally, in my world, that has to be taught… and they’re eager to learn and eager to work.”

The deploy­ment marks the sev­enth deploy­ment of active-duty Marines called upon to join fire­fight­ers in a ground attack on a wild­land fire since two Marine infantry bat­tal­ions from Camp Pendleton and six Army bat­tal­ions were called to assist fed­er­al fire­fight­ers in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. The 7th ESB’s deploy­ment is the 39th time since 1987 that the Defense Department has mobi­lized ground units to sup­port wild­land fire­fight­ing efforts, accord­ing to ARNORTH.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper greets California National Guard Sgt. George Esquivel, Sgt. Cameron Powell and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding, who were involved in a search and rescue mission at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the area the Creek Fire was burning. Esper spoke with about two dozen guardsmen involved in the recent firefighting and rescue efforts in California on Sept. 18, 2020, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. USNI News photo.

The California National Guard has already been sup­port­ing both state and fed­er­al fire­fight­ing efforts for weeks ahead of what is typ­i­cal­ly a late-September kick­off of fire season. Brig. Gen. Jeff Smiley, the direc­tor of joint staff for the California National Guard and the com­man­der of Joint Task Force Domestic Support California, told USNI News on Sept. 17 that most of the 11 Western states were send­ing in air­craft and per­son­nel to help, too, but that they were also deal­ing with their own wild­fire out­breaks, strain­ing the abil­i­ty to respond.

“Our feel­ings on cli­mate change here in California: California has been aggres­sive­ly impact­ed by that; our fire season starts sooner and our fire sea­sons now go up until December, where they have not been that way over the last I would say maybe six years ago. So every year our fire season is grow­ing in length, and so I can’t tell you when” the season will end this year. A typ­i­cal fire season years ago might start in late September or early October and rage until early November, when the winds change.

“I don’t see really an end until we get some rain and that puts all these fires out.”

The California National Guard made per­haps the most dra­mat­ic rescue in the Creek Fire, where the Marines and sailors are headed, with an Army CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Blackhawk dou­bling and at times tripling the number of pas­sen­gers they’re allowed to carry in order to save as many vaca­tion­ers as pos­si­ble at a lake that was over­come by the fire.

Sgt. George Esquivel and Sgt. Cameron Powell were the two flight engi­neers on the Chinook, and they said their fire train­ing helped them under­stand how their air­craft would per­form in the smokey and windy con­di­tions, how their down­wash might affect the embers and flames they were flying over, and how many pas­sen­gers they could cram onto their heli­copter with­out over­strain­ing the air­craft.

At each turn, they said, they were maxing out the limits of their heli­copter to save as many people as pos­si­ble. They landed on a con­crete boat launch­ing pad on the lake that had a 13-degree incline, right at the limits of where they could land in windy con­di­tions.

And where­as they are sup­posed to be lim­it­ed to 33 pas­sen­gers at a time, they took on 67 on the first lift, 102 on the second lift and 37 on the third and final lift.

“We were pretty heavy on that second lift, but we just didn’t know if we were going to be able to make it back a third time. The smoke and every­thing was start­ing to come in, so we needed to pile as many people in as we could to max­i­mize our rescue mis­sion,” Powell said.
“We gotta do what we gotta do in that sit­u­a­tion.”

The director of Joint Staff, California Joint Force Headquarters, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey D. Smiley, briefs Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper about California National Guard firefighting operations, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Sept. 18, 2020. DoD photo.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding was flying the Blackhawk in the same rescue mis­sion and is sup­posed to carry 11 pas­sen­gers; he picked up 15, 22 and 21 pas­sen­gers on his three flights into the fire.

“Each indi­vid­ual crew is mon­i­tor­ing each other: how do you feel, how well can you see, do you feel com­fort­able, is it safe for us to con­tin­ue. And then we also com­mu­ni­cate between the two air­craft to say, hey, this is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m feel­ing, and make sure that we’re chal­leng­ing each other so we don’t get too far into an area that we can’t recov­er the air­craft safety back,” he said during the inter­view.

“We took out every person that wanted to come out. Each time we went there were more and more people assem­bled next to the air­craft, and we took more in later turns that, when we first went there the first time it didn’t seem like there were that many people, but more just kept coming and coming and coming,” Goding said.
“When we told them this was our last turn, there were only two people that left that stayed there; they both vol­un­tar­i­ly stayed there, they said they were going to spend the night.”

Esquivel, who was the first one to leave the air­craft upon find­ing the boat launch land­ing zone and went to gather people await­ing rescue, said “it was, the best I can describe it is just absolute chaos. Nobody knew where to go, nobody knew who to talk to or how to get help. And it was kind of just … apoc­a­lyp­tic in there. We’re all human, we’re scared, we don’t know what to do, but all our train­ing kicks in.”

USNI source|articles

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