LAKEVIEW, Ore. – The general’s eyes scanned the 40 or so National Guard troops assembled in a horseshoe around him in a field here Thursday and he felt pride.
“Whatever the mission – fighting America’s wars, securing the homeland or building partnerships – our Soldiers and airmen provide extraordinary service to their communities and our nation,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, said after his visit with troops supporting civilian agencies fighting the 400,000-acre Bootleg Fire.
“In the last 19 months, in addition to our primary mission serving overseas, Guard members have helped America fight the COVID-19 pandemic, responded to civil unrest, secured the U.S. Capitol and performed numerous other roles,” Hokanson said. “Now they are engaged with wildfires which seem to be becoming a yearlong rather than seasonal challenge.”
Incident commanders from the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office and other agencies joined Hokanson, praising Guard members’ contributions to the local, state and federal team fighting the nation’s largest actively burning wildfire.
“My best days are the ones visiting with our Soldiers and Airmen doing their missions,” Hokanson said.
This visit was particularly special: Hokanson knew many of the Soldiers. He served with them earlier in his career on similar missions.
The Guardsmen and women are part of a multi-agency team of more than 2,000 people fighting Oregon’s fourth-largest fire since 1900, which has burned more than 530 square miles and is so large and hot that it has changed the weather. The fire is entering its third week.
With much of the West in a drought and a recent heat dome and frequent high winds, officials stress the importance of individual preparedness, including having family evacuation plans.
“It is always important to be personally ready for natural or manmade disasters,” Hokanson said. “We need everyone to help us do our work by staying ready for short-notice events such as extreme weather, wildfires, or other emergencies.”
Hokanson also assessed the Bootleg Fire’s impact from the air, stopping in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to recognize Guardsmen for recent lifesaving aerial rescues.
The warrant officers and enlisted Soldiers hoisted hikers to safety in three separate missions in the last three weeks. The hikers had suffered falls and, in one case, heatstroke.
Those recognized included a Nevada Guardsman who flew in on one day’s notice to join Oregon crews on fire missions, then volunteered at the end of a long duty day to help search for a missing firefighter.
“What a wide variety of ways we serve our communities every day,” Hokanson said. “The combination of our troops’ military capabilities and the civilian-acquired skills they bring to their service is a national treasure.”
Hokanson would return to the nation’s capital at the end of the day, but he wouldn’t escape the Bootleg Fire: Its smoke has reached the East Coast, temporarily diminishing air quality and reminding the nation of the challenging wildfire season unfolding in the West.
This is Oregon’s second year facing extreme wildfire danger. Last year – on top of the pandemic – fires in the state killed 11 people and burned more than 1 million acres. All Western states are facing similar wildfire dangers.
“We stand Always Ready, Always There, to support our local, state and federal partners,” Hokanson said.
Just last month, another 110 Oregon National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen completed the training required to hold Red Cards, certifying their readiness to respond to wildfires. Hundreds of Oregon Guard members hold the certification and stand ready to respond.
National Guard support to wildfire responses includes aircraft and helicopters that drop water or retardant, firefighting crews on the ground, medical evacuation helicopters, traffic control and numerous other missions.
Hokanson is the first chief of the National Guard Bureau to sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who previously served as an adjutant general, leading the Oregon National Guard earlier in his career.
The CNGB ensures the 443,000 National Guard Soldiers and Airman who serve as the primary combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force are accessible, capable and ready to support our combatant commanders overseas and our communities here at home.
Master Sgt. John Hughel, Oregon National Guard; The New York Times; and Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed to this report.