From tactical to practical, military meets California's needs
Soldiers from the California National Guard use a ladder and saw off a traffic cone to fill sandbags in Valley Center, Calif., Oct. 27, 2007, in anticipation of the mudslides and flashfloods expected to follow the wildfires plaguing Southern California. The Department of Defense has teamed up with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to help put out the wildfires blazing across Southern California.

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. (Army News Service, Oct. 30, 2007) - When the call came requesting federal help to combat the flames engulfing Southern California, the Department of Defense, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California National Guard sprang into action.

Approximately 2,738 National Guard Soldiers are still assisting the fire effort in Southern California; a number are filling sandbags to keep mud from sliding down hills into residential areas.

"This was a larger incident than California is used to, and there was a very quick response from the state," said Warrant Officer Bill M. Heintz, from the California National Guard Headquarters. "They couldn't have reacted any faster than they did."

Much of the quick response is due to constant practice and national-level exercises. Without the training, major national disasters could have an even more-devastating impact on local communities.

"The state knows what's going on and what it needs to do," Warrant Officer Heintz explained. "We are here to provide support and assets to help the California Department of Forestry Fire Protection do their job."

One of the most important assets provided by the National Guard is aviation resources. Some of these aerial assets are the U2, provided by the Air Force, P3, Global Hawk, an unmanned vehicle used for imagery collection, RC26 planes with imagery equipment and Chinook helicopters for the movement of personnel.

"We're here to provide military assets and support, and we're using these assets to give Cal Fire a picture of the battlefield," explained Warrant Officer Heintz.

But having the proper equipment does not always mean success. It takes practice and training to become skilled working with other agencies, especially when working with entities as large as the California National Guard, Joint Task Force Civil Support and FEMA. Deploying the right people to the right place is vital to the mission here.

"Our job is to place the right peg in the right hole to help fight these fires," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Roberto Montoto, an intelligence specialist chief. "We're working to provide the right level of support and not get in the way of those fighting the fires."

To provide that adequate level of support, the California National Guard, JTF-CS and Cal Fire have practiced through staged disasters at the state and federal levels.

"We know and understand each other's protocols and assets through cross training in the past," said State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan. "There are preplanned units out there that are trained to support us and provide the department with the necessary assets and equipment. The National Guard has the ability to quickly fill in behind us here, especially with the aviation assets."

By moving so quickly, the joint effort to fight the fires has gone smoothly. Units can rapidly deploy to hot spots and anywhere else needed to help with either evacuations or security needs. The original response, however, was the starting point for a successful mission.

"These guys are doing stuff not even in doctrine yet," said Warrant Officer Heintz. "They had to in order to get everything done so fast."

Once on the ground, every command post needed to find out exactly what was going on in their respective areas. To do this, those in charge needed information and imagery to properly place units.

"To fight fires, people need information, "explained Chief Petty Officer Montoto. "We get the requests here and answer questions that the incident managers need to be successful."

Getting all the right units working together in such a large effort can be difficult, but well worth the effort. To ensure that everything goes smoothly, communication has been a key aspect.

Much of this communication was also provided by the National Guard and the Air Force in the area.

This is the first time the Air Force and our type of unit have stood up to work together and all the entities are working as such a tight cell. It's going stunningly," exclaimed Marshal Dargan.

(Pfc. Brandon C. Pomrenke works for the 11th Public Affairs Detachment at Fort Hood, Texas.)

Page last updated Tue October 30th, 2007 at 00:00