Soldiers help battle California wildfires
September 4, 2008
FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. -- Six Soldiers, dressed in yellow firefighter jackets with helmets and thick boots, stood in front of a 78,000 pound tactical fire truck awaiting orders.
A fire suddenly blazed 40 feet into the sky behind them, but the Soldiers didn't flinch. Instead, they made their way around the truck, taking time to check and secure their gear.
These Soldiers are the 459th Engineering Detachment (Firefighting) from Granite City, Ill. They originally arrived here for annual training, but were recently asked to join the battle against the wildfires burning near the base, since June 8.
This 10-man crew consists of firefighters and mechanics, each certified to fight on the fire lines. On Thursday, they were protecting the areas under controlled burn to help prevent the fires from spreading. Using axes and saws, the crew cleared and surveyed areas for flames, embers and smoke - all while maintaining safety and watching out for each other.
The crew has been through the classes and learned from books, but it doesn't compare to the real experience, explained Sgt. Matthew J. Thompkins, crew chief for the unit.
"The best part of all this is getting to see the operations, being able to get our hands on it and get dirty, because then you learn," said Thompkins.
Civilian crews on the fire line have helped the Soldiers with such issues as hand tools and safety, he said. Their mechanics have also helped with some of the firefighting tasks, but their priority remains vehicle maintenance.
This is the first time the unit has been able to work together in a real world situation, said Spc. Jessica L. Huber, the driver and pump operator for the crew. Their confidence and ability to communicate was tested beyond any team training that they had done before, and they found themselves well adapted and confident, she stated proudly.
The tactical fire fighting truck can hold 1,000 gallons of water and is more than 17 feet long. The access roads to the secluded region are barely as wide as the truck and Huber needed at least three ground guides to help her navigate through the sharp turns and narrow paths - most of them next to a life-threatening sheer drop.
"I put my life in (their) hands and I trust them completely," said Huber, expressing her gratitude for her fellow Soldiers. "If we didn't work together as a team, we wouldn't have made it up here."
Two of the firefighters, Thompkins and Spc. Scott M. Hollensteiner, are also civilian firefighters. Situations like this haven't happened for them yet, they said, but this event only better prepares them for the future.
"None of our training has been as extensive as this and we are just thankful to be out here," said Huber. "We didn't expect anything like this ... we're definitely lucky."