Community pulls together as wildfire ravages Huachuca mountains
June 24, 2011
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz., June 27, 2011 -- First reports of a fire in the Huachuca Mountains came in the early afternoon, June 12, 2011. Nearly 10 days later, the fire has burned more than 27,000 acres on the U.S. side of the mountains and more than 1,500 acres in Mexico.
As of yesterday, there were 1,189 personnel assigned to the fire, including 23 crews, 106 engines, four helicopters, eight air tankers and four bulldozers. Although the number fluctuates as people are allowed to return to their neighborhoods, it is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.
One thing that has been consistent with this fire is the way the Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista, Ariz., communities have joined together. The outpouring of support is prevalent in every aspect of this crisis.
The first Sierra Vista community meeting took place June 14 at the Windemere Hotel and Conference Center in Sierra Vista. By the third meeting, held June 16, attendance had more than doubled, and it was standing-room only.
A spokesman for the American Red Cross thanked the community for the donations of food, water and hygiene items for evacuees and firefighters, and said, "But please, stop it!" The donations were so abundant that they had neither the staff nor the space to handle it all.
Servicemembers from the fort are not trained or certified to fight wildfires, but they are contributing to the firefighting efforts in many other ways.
Fort Huachuca's B Troop, 4th Regiment, U.S. Cavalry (Memorial) extended a helping hand -- and trailers -- to community members who needed to evacuate horses and other large animals to safety. Lt. Col. Victor Hamilton assumed command of the newly re-designated 2nd Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment at a formal ceremony on June 14, and immediately jumped into action.
More than 725 personnel under his command were actively engaged in clearing and fire preparation operations in the Black Tower area and throughout Fort Huachuca. On that same day, they began working around the clock, performing tasks in support of the Fort Huachuca community.
"We de-fueled aircraft, ground support equipment and ground vehicles. We reconfigured flight systems for storage and repositioned sensitive and hazardous equipment," Hamilton said.
In addition to taking care of the equipment, Soldiers from the 2-13th also supported the Fort Huachuca firebreak and clearing efforts around post as a preventive measure, should the fire spread into the fort.
They formed fire quick reaction teams, conducted pre-evacuation rehearsals, verified alert and notification procedures, identified employees with special needs, confirmed transportation requirements, participated in garrison town hall meetings, researched and disseminated dislocation benefits -- all while receiving redeploying Soldiers and conducting ongoing training requirements.
"I have been impressed by several things," Hamilton said. "The teamwork throughout the community both on-and off-post; watching units who do not deal with this every day come together with state, local and federal agencies to synchronize an effort of this size is indeed impressive."
The Fort Huachuca command group quickly ensured we all acted as one early in the process.
"I believe that we complement and support each other seamlessly to ensure the community receives the support it expects," Hamilton said.
As personnel on the fort were engaged in clearing brush and creating fire breaks in the Garden Canyon area, sparks from a bulldozer blade ignited a second fire that swept through more than 2,000 acres on the fort. The wind-driven grass fire -- then dubbed Antelope Fire, and now named Garden Fire -- quickly raced through the dry terrain.
Within minutes, the main gate, main gate shoppette, Vehicle Registration, Thrift Store, and Widow Support Center were evacuated and closed. Some firefighting efforts from the Monument Fire were diverted to the fort with at least 54 firefighters, 4 pumpers and 2 engines on the scene. Within a few hours, it was snuffed-out.
While the threat of the Monument Fire spreading to Fort Huachuca has diminished, ongoing protective and prevention operations are still under way.
Companies C, D and E, 305th Military Intelligence Battalion, have been engaged in fire break and clearing operations since Friday, said Capt. Mark Swiney, Company E commander.
Flexibility for unforeseen events or weather is built into the training schedule, so the 130 advanced individual training students from Companies C and D and the 40 cadre from Company E were able to assist with the efforts around the fort without impacting or detracting from training.
"We cleared almost two miles of fire line, 100 feet [wide] from the road since Friday afternoon," said Company E 1st Sgt. Gabriel Frank. "The students were able to do this because they are motivated and they are motivated because their NCOs (noncommissioned officers) are motivated."
The Monument Fire is still burning through the Huachuca Mountains, but authorities say that it is now 45 percent contained. There are a few sources of misinformation out there that are well-intentioned, yet ripe with rumors and conjecture.
The best way to get accurate information regarding the fire, evacuations and volunteering or donation needs, is to attend the nightly community information meetings held at the Buena Performing Arts Center at 6 p.m. and the Fort Huachuca town hall meetings as they take place (announced as scheduled).
The Fort Huachuca Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/u.s.armyforthuachuca, is also updated on a regular basis with information that is timely, accurate and pertinent to the Fort Huachuca community.
With the cohesion and partnership between the city of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca, this community can weather just about any crisis and come out stronger in the end.