MENDOCINO NATIONAL FOREST, California – In the midst of the California wildfires, more than 200 U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) Soldiers are supporting wildland fire ground response operations in the August Complex, located in the densely forested northern part of the state.
“We are proud to support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in their effort to suppress the fires in Northern California,” said Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, ARNORTH and Joint Force Land Component commander.
Richardson said the Soldiers assisting in this mission are highly-trained and well-equipped with all of the protective gear needed to keep them safe, to include measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The U.S. Army North supporting unit, the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, is assisting the U.S. Forest Service with wildland fire response efforts in the Mendocino National Forest - at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Soldiers deployed Aug. 31 and conducted training and fire line certification prior to and immediately upon arrival to base camp.
Since their arrival at the August Complex wildland fire, the Soldiers have been working extremely hard, hiking up mountains carrying hoses and equipment, creating grids to search for hotspots, and helping ensure extinguished wildfires dos not reignite.
Specialist Michael Ybarra, a photographer with the 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from JBLM, is in California following the 14th BEB into the fire zone.
The California native said covering the wildfires is like nothing he has ever experienced.
“For the past couple weeks, I have been out documenting the Soldiers while they conduct mop up and burn operations. That is when they go out and check for hot spots and burn any wildfire fuel to prevent further spread into populated areas,” he said.
“The Soldiers go out on location for three or four days at a time, working practically nonstop in the heat and smoke and ash, digging lines, cutting down trees, and creating controlled burns," he said, adding that Soldiers have a break between rotations to replenish, take showers and rest before they head back out.
Ybarra said the battalion crews out on the lines are very upbeat about what they are accomplishing.
“Their spirits are high," he said. "A lot of these guys are from California, so they are happy to back doing what they can do to keep their state and their home safe.”
“At the end of the day, we are Soldiers. We are here to serve the U.S. of A., so doing this work is essentially that,” he said. “We are serving our nation by trying to control and suppress these fires, and aiding our federal allies.”
For Ybarra, who has never covered fires before, the experience has been mind-boggling.
“Being able to experience fires like this, of this magnitude – now the largest fire in California history – is something you won’t soon forget,” he said.
Private First Class Laura Peña, who is normally a technical engineer specialist who surveys building sites and tests soil with the 14th BEB at JBLM, is currently spending her days organizing convoys and tracking her battalion’s troop movements in the Mendocino National Forest.
Peña said while troops are actively in the fight against the August Complex wildfires, measures are taken constantly to ensure their safety.
“I am the link between the Soldiers on the fire line and command team,” she said. “We are basically here overshadowing, making sure our troops are safe, and we have accountability of them as they support the division and branch commanders fighting the wildland fire.”
In addition, Peña said trained professional wildland firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management are assigned to each crew to ensure processes are being followed. Each crew also has a communication device which is used to contact the Tactical Operations Center where Pena is located.
"We have different methods of communication, but the main method is a software that allows us to see their real-time location and allows them to send us messages regarding their movements, status, medical situations, or even request information,” she said.
During this historic 2020 wildfire season, Peña said she considers it a privilege to be able to contribute to the fight.
“I feel honored to be here, to help in such a historic event,” she said. “It is an excellent opportunity to help in some way when the country needs us the most.”
Recently, the U.S. Army North commander and Senior Enlisted Leader, Command Sgt. Maj. Phil Barretto, visited the area where the Soldiers are deployed, and were briefed by 14th BEB Soldiers and members of the Great Basin Team 2.
They also met with the director of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, director of CAL FIRE, and the Pacific Southwest Region director of Fire and Aviation Management for U.S. Forest Service, to discuss current response operations.
The August Complex of fires began as 37 lightning-ignited fires Aug. 17. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the fire has burned more than 839,175 acres, and the fire perimeter is 30 percent contained as of Sept. 17.