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.


  1. One of those fires was started at Camp Pendleton with live ammunition, and it resulted in the scorching of 4,000 acres and the evacuation of nearby areas. So, some of those Marines were probably fighting fires right there on Camp Pendleton property.

    There’s an old civil law theory that goes something like this: if you put your neighbor in danger, then you have a duty to get him/her out of that danger. So, the Marines, at least as to the fire on their own base, were just trying to be good neighbors.

  2. another thing that many people forget / don’t realize: many wildland firefighters are seasonal employees. This time of year the man-power on the larger crews have been depleated as college students (like me) return to school. Pulling in the military to help out frees up the highly experienced career seasonals that are still working to focus on the attack. Also remember that these career seasonals have been working like this since April or May, and this has been a busy season for some areas. Many of them even helped out on the shuttle recovery efforts down in Texas last spring. Consequently they’re tired to begin with. Forest Service regulations dictate that they can’t work more than 16 hours per day. But regs don’t carry a whole lot of weight when homes are burning down.

    If you would like more info on wildland firefighting check out