This summer’s sprawling Western wildfires may go down in history as a disaster that spurred one of the longest-ever call-ups of National Guard members for firefighting, the commander of the U.S. National Guard said Thursday during a visit to Central Washington fire camps.
“When we see the tally at the end of fire season, it’s going to be among the longest,” said Gen. Frank Grass, who joined the National Guard in Missouri as an enlisted soldier in 1969.
More than 2,100 National Guard members are on orders fighting fires in five Western states. The season started early in California, and it could drag out through this month.
About half of those National Guard soldiers are on firefighting-related assignments in Washington. This week, they are benefiting from wet weather that’s helping contain fires that have consumed more than 900,000 acres of land since Aug. 24. More than 8 million acres have burned across the country this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
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Grass, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to visit Washington to get a firsthand look at how troops are holding up. He also wanted to learn how the state readied for what officials anticipated would be a difficult firefighting season.
He got an enthusiastic earful from civilian firefighters who characterized the Washington National Guard as well-prepared. National Guard soldiers have incorporated fire training in their annual readiness drills for the past two years, which made them quickly available when fires spread.
“What they’re doing, they’re ready. They don’t have to get another day of training at the fire,” said Dave LeFave, chief of Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue in southern Washington.
That’s a contrast to most states where large numbers of National Guard members often wait to begin training until after a fire ignites. It also allows National Guard members to build experience and lead basic fire crews instead of drawing resources from professional firefighters.
“We don’t want to bog them down babysitting us,” said the Washington National Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty.
Grass called the firefighting preparations “very uncommon.”
He also used his visit to answer questions. He heard some anxiety among citizen soldiers about how a fast-moving Army drawdown may impact them. The vast majority of the cuts are falling on the active-duty Army, which is shedding about 120,000 troops from its Iraq War peak of 570,000 soldiers.
Grass told groups of soldiers that they shouldn’t be concerned about being caught up in the force reduction. The National Guard Bureau makes up a fairly small portion of the roughly $600 billion defense budget, and lawmakers have been working to shield it from deeper cuts.
“I wouldn’t worry about it. What you do every day, people see it,” Grass told troops at a stop in Yakima.
At each stop, Grass singled out troops to ask about their assignments and to hand out coins thanking them for their service.
One of the soldiers he pulled aside was Sgt. Taylor Anderson of University Place, who joined the National Guard three years ago after serving in the elite 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Since he enlisted in the Guard, Anderson, 26, has participated in search and recovery teams after the Oso mudslide last year and worked on this season’s wildfires. He said he felt a sense of accomplishment from his domestic assignments.
“Just to be able to be a part of closure and relief for these families, it’s something you can’t replace,” he said.