Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton got a crash course on wildland firefighting.
“Normally, we do two weeks of training, but we consolidated that into two days,” said Isaac Tzintzun, a Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighter. “We’ll do two more days when we get up (to the Creek Fire), and then we’ll be on the fire line.”
Tzintzun, 38, who serves with 23 other firefighters from the Devil’s Canyon Hand Crew based in Worland, Wyo., also served in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton from 2004 to 2011. He and his crew were among firefighters from civilian agencies who, on Friday, Sept. 18, spent time teaching 250 Marines and sailors from the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, the basics of what they will spend the next 30 days doing.
The Marines – who in their military jobs build, repair and maintain buildings, roads and power supplies under fire and in dangerous combat environments – were headed 350 miles north to the Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest. The fire is burning northeast of Fresno along both sides of the San Joaquin River near Mammoth Pool, Shaver Lake, Big Creek and Huntington Lake. The wildland fire began on Sept. 4, and has charred more than 244,000 acres. It was barely a quarter contained as of Friday and its cause remains under investigation.
Officials said on Friday that winds were expected to increase over the next several days potentially causing the blaze to spread again. The Marines and sailors headed out on buses from Camp Pendleton on Saturday, Sept. 19, to meet up with 200 Army soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., who deployed in late August to help combat the growing fires.
More than 17,000 firefighters, including about 1,200 California National Guard members, are working throughout the state. An estimated 3.3 million acres have already burned this season, officials said. Fires are also raging in Oregon and Washington.
The active-duty military assistance was requested from the Department of Defense by the National Interagency Fire Center, which oversees all state and federal wildland firefighting efforts, said Nicole Wieman, a spokesperson with U.S. Army North, which oversees military support.
This is the second time in 20 years Marines from Camp Pendleton have been called to fight wildland fires. In 2000, a unit was activated to help near Salmon, Idaho. Since 1988, the DOD has provided military support to fires 39 times.
“Given the unprecedented fire season and the magnitude of the loss the people of California are experiencing, we stand ready to support the National Interagency Fire Center in their effort to help protect people, property and land in California,” said Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commander of Army North, in a statement. “Just like the soldiers supporting fire suppression efforts in Northern California, the Marines and sailors who will assist in this mission in central California are trained and equipped with all of the necessary gear to keep them safe, to include in a (coronavirus) environment.”
On Friday, the Marines and sailors, most ranging in age from 18 to 22 years old, were given protective gear including flame-resistant pants, shirts, boots and hard hats. Along with those, they got backpacks filled with rations, canteens, gloves and aluminum fire shelters, which reflect radiant heat and trap breathable air. The shields are the last-ditch effort for firefighters if trapped in a wildland fire.
Then they spent the day getting briefed on what to expect. This included classroom instruction on the operation of a fire camp and their specific tasks. Then they went into the field and practiced using their equipment.
Tzintzun and his crew provided instruction along with firefighters from the National Parks Service. U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.
Though none of these Marines and sailors have had experience working in fire, Tzintzun is confident they will be tremendous assets. After arriving in Northern California, they will spend two more days preparing before heading in to help.
“Even if you’re just coming out of boot camp, you’re a shoo-in for wildland firefighting,” Tzintzun said. “You’re already used to a stressful, crazy environment, where you don’t shower and get crappy chow. The camaraderie in my wildland firefighting crew is the same brotherhood I had in the Marine Corps.”
The group will be working at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet and the terrain will mostly be covered with dense forests and a lot of brush. They will do a lot of hiking, digging lines, checking hot spots, and a lot of cutting down trees to create a fire line.
Tzintzun likened that to what the Marines already know how to do, but it will involve hours of back-breaking work surrounded by fire and smoke.
“Up there, we’ll probably be digging a foot down and 2 to 3 feet wide,” he said. “Sometimes, we’ll do that for miles.”
Some of the Marines will be part of a saw crew, which means they’ll be ahead of the others cutting down trees as they go.
“It will be a real eye-opener,” Tzintzun said. “It’s not like being in shape for the gym. It’s another thing to be working in that element, bent over for 16 hours at a time.”
At the end of the day Friday, Tzintzun was optimistic the troops will be ready. “They all seem like good kids, they’re super eager.”
Lt. Col. Melina Mesta, commanding officer of the battalion, told her group three things: “Be ready, professional and be the best.”
In case the nation ever calls again, Mesta said she wants it to call for the Marine Corps by name.
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