JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCHORD, Wash. - According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the arrival of hot, dry weather, combined with drought conditions, has prompted the WDFW to restrict fires and other activities effective immediately on agency-managed lands in eastern Washington.
There are at least 17 large wildfires currently burning, and because of tapped resources, U.S. Army soldiers from 5th Battalion (HIMARS), 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, are deploying from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to join the fire lines.
"Our battalion received orders and is prepared to mobilize approximately 200 Soldiers in support of the National Interagency Fire Center's efforts," said Lt. Col. James Dunwoody, commander of the 5-3 FA.
This is the first time since 2006 that the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center, in charge of coordinating resource deployment for the nation's wildfire response, has asked for military help, agency officials said.
All national firefighting resources, including some 26,000 firefighters, 33 air tankers and 160 helicopters, are fully deployed - but even that response hasn't kept pace during this feverish fire season.
"Soldiers are being trained by a team of professional wildland fire agency personnel, including the Bureau of Land Management Vegas Valley crew comprised entirely of military veterans." said Dunwoody.
The soldiers are slotted to break into 10 crews consisting of 20 Soldiers each and will be ready to depart to Eastern Washington any time after 9 a.m. Aug. 20, thanks to hands-on training. They will get further training onsite before moving to the fire line.
"We feel pretty lucky to have the opportunity to help military integrate into wildland fire, and it's going to help us quite a bit," said Jason Lanier, a squad boss on the Vegas Valley hand crew and 15-year firefighting veteran. "There are so many fires out there that we kind of have our hands tied."
"We were asked to come here and help these guys out and get them situated so they have a basic understanding of fighting fire and the tools they need to get this job done safe," he added. "It's a great thing to be able to show them how to do that and hopefully it helps them."
Dunwoody said the "First Round" Soldiers morale is high even with the possibility of being deployed for 30 days or more.
"Any deployment is time away from home," said Dunwoody. "This is a way for the Soldiers to give back to the community and they all seem pretty excited."
Dunwoody said this was similar to regular deployments in some ways like their focus on a common mission, building teamwork and esprit de corps.
"We are following the firefighters who are professionally trained and assisting them," said Sgt. Michael Nazarko a multiple launch rocket system crewman with 5-3 FA. "They basically go through an area and put out the main fire and what we do is if there is anything still smoldering, we make sure it doesn't flare back up."
"We tend to do a lot of different things (in the Army), said Nazarko, a Lyndhurst, New Jersey native. "I've done firefinder radar operator, 13 Mike [artillery] missions and now a firefighting mission."
"That's why I love the job," he added. "We get to do our job and everything else."
Pvt. Josh Beam, multiple launch rocket system ammo specialist with 5-3 FA, has only been in the Army for six months but says he too is looking forward to this mission.
I'm excited," said Beam, a Healdsburg, Calif., native. "I actually wanted to join a fire department after I got out of the Army, so this is going to be a fun experience for me."