Oregon National Guard members train to battle wildland fires

  • Published
  • By Sgt. 1st Class Amy Elker
  • Oregon Military Department Joint Forces Headquarters

SALEM, Ore. - Even during a pandemic and protests, the potential for wildfires does not diminish. Always at the ready, approximately 400 Oregon National Guard (ORNG) Citizen-Soldiers and-Airmen completed "Red Card" training July 11-17 at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) in Salem.

The training at DPSST certifies red card ORNG members for the upcoming wildfire period. Approximately 180 Guard members had already received the wildland firefighter training in the past and only needed the refresher course, held July 11-12, to maintain their certification. The remaining Guard members, who needed initial certification, arrived on July 13 and concluded their training on July 17. Both groups' training culminated in a live-fire field burn, where the groups put out different fires and scratching lines, replicating what they would do if they were activated in the state this summer for wildland fire support.

Ericks Gabliks, DPSST director, said the partnership between the ORNG and DPSST is vital to assisting Oregon's citizens during the fire season.

"Having a ready, trained, well-equipped and physically fit workforce ready to respond to help neighbors is what the National Guard does," Gabliks said, "and from our end at DPSST, we're honored to train the men and women of the National Guard who may answer the call."

The partnership ORNG has with DPSST to train service members in firefighting, stemmed from the Guard's ongoing agreement with Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), known as Operation Plan Smokey, which stipulates the specifics of how Oregon Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen can assist in firefighting efforts.

This is the second year the training is being offered, allowing Guard members to respond if their assistance is needed this summer by the ODF quickly.

In the past, ODF would make a request, after all, their resources were depleted, to receive assistance from the ORNG; however, it would take up to 10 days to get the service members deployed, trained and ready to go.

"The nice thing about this proactive approach," Gabliks said, "is we've shaved that 10-day window down to two days. It's pretty exciting that we're able to do this with the fire forecast this summer being very dry, very hot and very dangerous."

The training provided to the members of the Oregon National Guard by DPSST is the same training required of all public and private wildland firefighters, which includes classroom, hands-on, and live-fire elements.

Oregon Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Tyler Meister, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, was a member of the recertification group who completed his initial training two years ago. Meister volunteered to become Red Card certified and said it had been a valuable experience.

"Every year, the National Guard is eager to do what we can to support the state and local communities during any natural disaster," Meister said. "Wildfire season is an annual issue Oregon and many other states battle, and the National Guard has become a trusted and reliable asset called upon to assist our Department of Forestry in that struggle."

Oregon Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Elijah Blackwell, 142nd Wing Communications Flight, also volunteered to become certified. Blackwell participated in the five-day initial Red Card certification training at DPSST and said he greatly valued working with experienced instructors and having the opportunity to assist with firefighting efforts in the future.

"The main reason I do it is that it's one of those rare things we get to do where we can contribute to a relevant mission that affects all Oregonians," he said. "These fires impact people's livelihoods, as they can shut down work for many people. It's dangerous, hard work. We all have to take turns, so here I am."

Wildfire training is a hot, tiresome job. However, training during times of COVID-19, while maintaining social distancing practices, made this year's training even more challenging.

"COVID-19 is creating issues for all of us across the world," Gabliks said. "From the wildland firefighting perspective, we had to take a step back and evaluate how we could safely provide training and how we would safely respond to wildland firefighting."

Some of the precautions DPSST put into place were setting up classrooms and living spaces according to CDC guidelines for 6 ft. physical separation, daily medical screenings, including taking all service members' temperatures, maintaining social distancing while eating or receiving food, using face coverings when social distancing guidelines could not be maintained, having hand sanitizing stations readily available, as well as cleaning work surfaces and high-touch points regularly. DPSST also sanitized sleeping and work quarters between the 1st recertification group rotations and the 2nd initial certification group.

Meister said these precautions are necessary, as the role of the ORNG aiding the state is even more important than previous years due to the COVID crisis limiting resources and availability.

"Oregon will have to utilize all available state assets this year, including the National Guard, to ensure we can successfully fight the wildfires this season."

Since March, the ORNG has been busy assisting the Oregon Health Authority in delivering personal protective equipment as part of the COVID-19 response and preparing for the upcoming fire season.

Oregon Army National Guard Aviation also completed Helicopter Bucket training in June to support potential firefighting incidents. Helicopter Buckets are specialized containers suspended on a cable and carried by helicopters to distribute water for airborne firefighting operations. The ORNG has HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and the newer F-Model CH-47 Chinook helicopters to support the ODF.

From 2015 to 2020, a total of 1,767 Oregon Guardsmen have been trained to assist the state with wildland firefighting. Many have been activated during this time following Governor Kate Brown's emergency declaration orders to include the Canyon Creek Complex in the Malheur National Forest in 2015, the Chetco Bar Fire in 2017 Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and the Garner Complex Fire near Grants Pass in 2018.

Though the citizens of Oregon may be faced with many uncertainties in the days and months ahead, one thing is sure: when the call comes, the men and women serving in the Oregon National Guard will be ready to support and help in whatever capacity is needed.

"We have a great state mission here," said Maj. Wayne Pong, wildland fire team lead, Oregon Army National Guard. "Not only do we support our missions overseas, but we also support the state of Oregon's citizens based on what the Governor wants us to do. It allows our Soldiers to come out and show their worth, and when we get called up, we're ready to rock n' roll."