Photo: Oregon National Guard
The 2020 wildfire season in Oregon was one of the most devastating and costly for the state while also impacted other Western states; all during a surge in the coronavirus pandemic. The fires burned more than a million acres of land, destroying homes and business, and claimed the lives of 11 people.
To prepare for the current season the Oregon National Guard completed initial Wildland Fire certification training more than 110 Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen to become “Red Card” certified at Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center from June 21-25, 2021.
In recent years the training had been conducted at the Department of Public Safety and Standards and Training in Salem, but this year the training was held at Camp Rilea.
“In some ways we had forgotten about coming here [Camp Rilea] and having the Oregon Military Department as a resource for this type of training,” said Army Master Sgt. Chris Ross, the Non Commissioned Officer-in-charge for the Wildland Firefighting training.
“We wanted to keep things organic to the National Guard and that everyone in our organization could be part of the training.”
The five-days of training culminated in a live-fire field burn, replicating the type of work that members would be called upon if activated for Wildland fire support later this summer.
“Everyone being trained this week is one of the last groups we have prepared for the season,” Ross explained. “We’ll have over 500 people ready to go if we get called up, so right now is just coordinating all the moving pieces -- going from the class room stage to the final hands on live burn exercise before we send everybody home.”
If the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) needs people and other resources, the Oregon National Guard will quickly be able to step in and send ready-trained members to locations around the state without delays from the required training.
With refresher training already conducted for most of the Oregon National Guard members early this season, Julia Johnson, a trainer for the Oregon Military Department (OMD) had been teaching these one-day sessions. She works full time at the Biak Training Center near Redmond, and was one of the many OMD Forest Officers working with the newly trained Guardsmen.
“You never know how a fire season is going to be until you get the starts,” she said, looking around the mixture of plant life at Camp Rilea. “The indicators with the fuels right now, is that it’s very dry, not just here but around the state.”
This is the main part of the training: An overall focus to prepare service members with all the factors that account for fire conditions and how to work and survive in dangerous conditions. Some of the in-class training involved topography, and weather related issues with atmosphere stability, winds, and clouds. Risk management and radio communications are also introduced, and are as important as the hand tools, fire hoses and fire shelters that members worked with in the field training.
“A majority of the work we do is at our own sites, but we’re here from all over the state to train military members,” said Jennifer Laib, who works at Camp Umatilla as an OMD Forest Officer. “This is a lot of new information and it’s all new to them as a group, so we make sure we go over everything in detail during this whole week of training.”
Oregon Air National Guard Senior Airman Selina Rodriguez, assigned to the 142nd Wing, was one of those newly trained and certified Wildland fire fighters. As she attentively worked to roll up a fire hose, she noted that the training was through and challenging.
“We are getting plenty of hands-on training and everyone learns each aspect of the mission.”
All of the training is fast paced but necessary to give the Soldiers and Airmen not only the knowledge they need but the confidence to take on hazardous fires.
“These have been some really long and grueling days to get everything done in this timeline,” said Ross. “With this group, there’s a good balance of soldiers and airmen -- so I am sure they have learned something about themselves, each other and the other branch of service too.”
The familiarity with each other after a week an intense training will also come into play if members are activated in the future. Wildland firefighting is built on teamwork, situational knowledge and good communication.
Prior to last year’s deadly fire season, the Oregon National Guard had activated nearly 1,800 Oregon Guardsmen during a five years span from 2015 to 2020. Governor Kate Brown's emergency declaration orders during this period 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.
Drawling on past experience, preparing and training now is critical, said Stephen Bomar, Director, Public Affairs for the Oregon Military Department.
“As an Oregonian and moving into this hot weather, it’s good to know our Guard members are trained, ready, and able to support and respond should the need arise.”
Source: Oregon National Guard