The state’s National Guard is poised for one of its largest firefighting call-ups in 13 years as fast-spreading blazes sweep through Central and Eastern Washington.
Already, 50 citizen soldiers and six helicopters from a Joint Base Lewis-McChord National Guard unit are participating in efforts to douse the flames from the air.
Another 100 citizen soldiers are on standby to fight fires on the ground. They have firefighting certifications and happen to be gathered at the Yakima Training Center this week for an annual training exercise.
“They are ready to support this mission and provide some much needed relief for the fire crews who have worked around the clock battling fast-spreading flames, fatigue and hot temperatures,” said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard.
Helicopter crews from the National Guard’s First Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation Regiment joined the fight Wednesday and have dropped 84,000 gallons of water on fires since, Guard spokeswoman Karina Shagren said.
Members of the firefighting team called it a rewarding, local mission.
“This is actually what I signed up to do,” Sgt. Cory Churchill told a National Guard video journalist as he prepared for a flight this week.
The Guard has called up four Blackhawk helicopters and two Chinooks for the fires. The Blackhawks can carry 600 gallons of water at a time, while the larger Chinooks can lift 2,000 gallons.
The state Department of Natural Resources is preparing to train more soldiers at the Yakima exercise for the firefighting assignment, too.
The state has not called on citizen soldiers to fight fires on the ground since 2001, when 1,000 joined firefighting efforts.
The state’s Guard helicopter crews last fought wildfires in 2012.
Some 2,000 firefighters are working in Eastern Washington to put out flames that have already consumed about 100 homes.