California Guard Engineers Build Temporary Bridge for Firefighting Effort

This was a mission about speed for the California Army National Guard’s 132nd Multirole Bridge Company.

First, there was the Pawnee Fire that erupted in late June in Lake County, California, that scorched more than 15,000 acres. Then the Spring 2 Fire ignited a few days later, but that was extinguished after a modest 80 acres burned. Yet the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was immediately busy again as the County Fire erupted in Napa and Yolo counties, and Cal Fire’s urgency to move its assets to fight the latest blaze was heightened.

“If we went left or right, it would have taken us several hours to get to the fight,” a Cal Fire official said. “But if we go up the middle, which we couldn’t at the time, we would be on site a lot faster. That’s why we called the [California Army National Guard]. They helped us out a few years ago with the same thing.”

As in 2015, 132nd Multirole Bridge Company engineers quickly stepped forward. The Redding, California-based, unit constructed a 100-foot improved ribbon bridge in the same location as three years ago, for the same purpose. The “go up the middle” effect allowed Cal Fire and other California Office of Emergency assets to quickly move heavy equipment and personnel to the wildfire.

The County Fire consumed more than 90,000 acres as of mid-July. It was destined for worse until emergency services contained it. The 132nd’s efforts to build the bridge in a matter of hours contributed to the County Fire’s containment.

Critical Speed

“The main thing is quickness,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, Cal Fire captain and military liaison, in 2015. “We can’t cut the fire off until all the lines are in. This bridge gives us faster access to the fire. We can get our bulldozers, equipment and people up there to fight it.”

The temporary structure floated adjacent to a permanent concrete bridge that was deemed “zero tons,” according to Steve Sahs, a California Department of Transportation senior bridge engineer/inspector, in his 2015 inspection. It’s passable for normal vehicles, but big, heavy equipment such as fire trucks and bulldozers aren’t permitted, Sahs explained.

Sahs said California has about 24,000 bridges. This bridge is one of about 10 in Cache Creek Regional Park.

“This has been closed since 2009 due to scour issues,” he said, noting the bridge was built in 1930. “You can see it’s old, because it’s made with square rebars.”

The improved ribbon bridge was used for about a week, Army Sgt. 1st Class Harley Ramirez said. More than 650 vehicles and 1,200 personnel crossed it. Ramirez stationed his troops on a 24-hour safety watch. He credited the team for its productiveness, noting how quickly the temporary bridge went up — and down — compared to three years ago.

“The water is a lot higher this year, along with a faster-moving current,” said Army Sgt. Dillon Graben, who was part of the crew in 2015. “There were a lot of variables from the last time we did this.”

“We had issues working in the tight areas, but this gave us hands-on experience on what to do and not,” said Army Sgt. Ellie Ogsbury, a 2015 bridge returnee.

Making a Difference

Three years ago, the 132nd erected the bridge mainly for Cal Fire to battle the Jerusalem and Rocky fires in Lake County. The Rocky Fire, which burned about 70,000 acres, was one of the largest blazes that year, second only to the nearby Valley Fire, which burned about 76,000 acres.

“This definitely opened our eyes. It let us know the importance of what we do,” said Army Spc. Aaron W. Parker. “It’s good to know what we did made a lot of difference.”

The 132nd is part of the 49th Military Police Brigade, which has seen several units activated this year. The 270th Military Police Company assisted law enforcement personnel during the Siskiyou Fire near the California-Oregon border. More than 500 from the 144th Field Artillery Battalion were training for ground operations by mid-July, one of the earliest call-ups for hand crews.

One person was injured in the County Fire, and 20 buildings were destroyed. More than 450 emergency personnel responded to the fire, and the majority of them used the bridge to reach the affected area.