Archives for October 30, 2003

Military Wildfire Firefighting

This has nothing to do with military firefighting as a profession, which is a military specialty. This has to do with the “send in the troops” solution which waxes and wanes with the severity and destruction of the current SoCal wildfires.

I was fortunate enough to provide medical planning and support for a Battalion of Marines going to Oregon in 199(7?). The Tower fire is how the Forest Service designated the effort. (When I write Marines, I mean Marines and Sailors, as the Marines don’t go places without their Corpsmen. Or their RP’s, for those who know what I’m talking about).

First, we need to understand what military wildfire support is, and what it isn’t. It is freeing up professional, trained firefighters to attack active fires by doing the backbreaking drudge work of cleaning up hot spots, raking embers, and that sort of thing. Therefore, it’s not the Marine with a chainsaw taking down a flaming tree, it’s a Marine with a rake stirring up ash and dust. It’s very useful, and it’s very hard work, so the contribution isn’t to be minimized, just everyone needs to know what they do.

The military really bends over backwards to avoid any appearance that they’re “cheap labor” or, worse, cutting civilians out of these jobs. The Forest Service has the same concerns (and a very small well of goodwill to draw from), so they don’t ask until the last minute.

Training for this sort of deployment is minimal, but is mostly safety-related. Being Marines, most units break out the unit chainsaws and train some sawyers to clear snags and that sort of thing. The safety training is taken very seriously: real, professional firefighters get killed doing this (I believe at least one was killed this week), so the danger is never minimized.

The upside is that the arrival of 400+ (a Battalion that’s in the rebuilding stages following a deployment) very fit and rested hard workers can significantly contribute to the manpower. There are potential downsides, which we took care of by isolating the troops in their own camp, with plenty of everything. You’ve never eaten so well in the wilderness as at a Forest Service fire. Tons of chow, and the FS spends a lot of money putting down gravel for walkways, plywood or bark chips in the tent floors, etc.

So, if and when they send in the Marines (and Sailors), understand what their role is, and isn’t.