By Capt. Jason Sweeney, California National GuardApril 1, 2019
CAMP ROBERTS, Calif. - The Cal Guard's Task Force Rattlesnake completed wildland firefighting training with CAL FIRE at Camp Roberts on Sunday and has headed out to protect California's communities vulnerable to wildfires.
The task force is made up of 100 Soldiers and Airmen who serve on five teams each led by a Cal Guard lieutenant and a non-commissioned-officer-in-charge (NCOIC) who report to a CAL FIRE captain. Two teams are stationed in Fresno and one team each is stationed in Monterey, Auburn and Redding. The teams will work alongside CAL FIRE to clear out potential "fuels," such as dead trees, dry vegetation and other flammable material from locations throughout the state.
Task Force Rattlesnake's mission supports California Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order to prepare a plan that will have the greatest impact on preventing the effects of deadly wildfires. The mission has taken on a sense of urgency due to the destructiveness of the past several fire seasons in the state.
"We've trained the task force to the normal level of military firefighters," CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Damon Godden said. "We've taken an extra step and implemented chainsaw training for fuels reduction."
About 160 Cal Guard Soldiers and Airmen volunteered for the mission. They arrived at Camp Roberts on California's Central Coast on March 22 for a week of training with CAL FIRE Military Crew Liaison Advisors (MCADs). The Cal Guard members were issued firefighting personal protective equipment. They received classroom training and conducted field training on the camp's hilly terrain. Of the volunteers, 100 were selected for the task force. They'll be on orders for six months with the option to extend for another six months.
The training at Camp Roberts included the use of firefighting tools, such as the Pulaski and McLeod hand tools. The Cal Guard members were taught to cut fire lines, use fire hoses, protect themselves with fire shelters, among other skills.
"The California National Guard brings a lot of troops to the fight," Godden said. "That helps us a lot. It only takes four or five CAL FIRE staff to work with over a hundred from the Cal Guard, so it gives us a lot of boots on the ground to get the job done. This kind of work is very arduous as far as physical labor, basically using chainsaws and hand tools on steep and uneven terrain. The work these troops will be doing will be in places where you can't get heavy equipment, so it's a lot of hiking and labor-intensive carrying of brush and stacking and using other equipment to help reduce the fuel."
Cal Guard Lt. Col. Sean Byrne serves as the California National Guard Joint Operations Liaison to CAL FIRE, and has coordinated activities between the two agencies for the past five fire seasons.
"Typically, we've deployed a battalion to serve as a hand crew task force," Byrne said. "The model for Task Force Rattlesnake is much different because it's a composite force from across the Cal Guard, many Soldiers from many units, and we also have Air Guard personnel on the task force. We bring a highly motivated force, a trainable force--disciplined personnel to perform these activities. It's important that our service members take direction from CAL FIRE MCADs who are the subject-matter experts and responsible for our safety and our effectiveness. The nature of our force makes that easier. We're a good fit."
On March 28 and 29, Task Force Rattlesnake headed to the recreational community of Cal Shasta Club on the shores of Lake Nacimiento located in the rural countryside outside of Camp Roberts. The community lost 28 homes in the Chimney Fire of 2016, which destroyed a total of 49 homes and 21 other structures.
"We are so grateful as a community to have the California National Guard here," said Phil Humfrey, Cal Shasta's only full-time resident. "We have 120 members in our club. We're a family community that's been here since 1959."
Humfrey said the community has been working with CAL FIRE to reduce the fire threat. "We spend a lot of money trimming trees and stuff, but there's just so much to do."
On a hill above Lake Nacimiento, CAL FIRE MCADs instructed the Cal Guardsmen on the use of chainsaws. During the training, the Cal Guard members cleared brush from a ravine.
"The training is great for them and it's a benefit for us," Humfrey said. "The ravine they're working in is covered with coyote brush, which is extremely flammable. They're going to try to clear that out because if a fire gets in that ravine, it will go up just like a chimney and take out the houses that are up against the hill there."
For Task Force Rattlesnake member Sgt. Michael Bargas, who serves with Battery A, 1st Battalion, 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, it was his first experience using a chainsaw, but not his first time on a firefighting hand crew.
"I worked on a hand crew in 2015 for the Mad River and Butte fires and loved it," he said. "When they said, hey, come out for a minimum of six months, I jumped on the chance."
Second Lt. Jonathan Green, from the 115th Regional Support Group, is serving as the officer-in-charge of the Auburn team. "Everyone's really motivated and excited to be a part of this project," he said. "We're forming a tight group. We're excited to hit the ground, make progress and hopefully prevent future fires from happening."
Task Force Rattlesnake is commanded by the Cal Guard's Maj. Robert Langston, who works on the civilian side as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. Langston's young son came up with the name for the task force.
"The feedback I'm getting from CAL FIRE is that Task Force Rattlesnake is doing great," Langston said. "We're here to make this mission a success, help the state with fuels management and make a positive impact on our communities by protecting them in the coming fire season."
"I think we're ready to get out there and serve the communities that we'll be working in," Byrne said. "We're excited to get out there and meet the governor's intent to make California safer."