The Pentagon will send about 200 soldiers from the state of Washington to help civilian firefighters battle at least one blaze as wildfires burning in 11 western states soak up resources.
Soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 14th Engineer Battalion will begin training Thursday on wildland firefighting skills and could join firefighting efforts as soon as Monday, said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman. The soldiers have not been assigned to a specific fire yet, Manning said.
The soldiers are not firefighters by trade, but Manning said the short training regimen will adequately prepare them for the tasks that they are given. Each team of 20 soldiers will operate alongside experienced wildland firefighters, he said.
“We’re not going to put our servicemembers in harm’s way if they are not prepared for it,” Manning said. “We’re putting the forces on the ground that we think are the right forces for the job.”
The 14th Engineer Battalion soldiers were chosen for their engineering expertise and are likely to aid civilian firefighters in operations including digging trenches and building fire breaks, officials said. They will be trained in wildland firefighting skills and outfitted with the same firefighting gear civilian wildland firefighters use.
More than 127 wildfires are burning across about 1.6 million acres in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Alaska, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Department of Defense has also provided five aircraft to aid in fighting the wildfires, four C-130 cargo planes outfitted with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems and an RC-26 surveillance plane, being used to monitor and map wildfires, Manning said.
Active-duty soldiers have for decades been tasked with helping civilian firefighting organizations battle wildfires, especially in the western United States. Last September, 200 soldiers from another JBLM unit — 1st Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division — were sent to Oregon for one month to aid in fighting a wildfire. Since 1987, active-duty troops have been called in to support wildfire operations 37 times, according the National Interagency Fire Center.
In addition to the JBLM soldiers, National Guard troops from Oregon, California and Washington have been activated to assist with suppressing the wildfires, according to the Pentagon.
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