JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – After wildfires burned through an impact area at Joint Base Lewis-McChord during the 2023 fire season, the base’s Integrated Training Area Management team enlisted the help of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade’s “Bigfoot” Company to help restore the area from the skies.
JBLM is affected in some way by wildfires nearly every year, and 2023 was no different. In June, a wildfire that started in the base’s Artillery Impact Area jumped across the East Range Road and into openings in the forest edge that had not burned for years.
The openings were part of an extensive prairie ecosystem that historically had been maintained with periodic controlled burns, a method that intentionally allows fire to spread across the landscape and remove shrubs and trees that would otherwise establish themselves and convert the prairie to forest. It had been years since the area had been burned, however, and in that time the area had become overgrown with thick patches of tall scotch broom, an aggressive non-native shrub that can quickly choke out native plants.
The June wildfire cleared the area of the invasive scotch broom, and after the fire had been extinguished the area was left primed for reseeding with native prairie species.
JBLM’s ITAM team is responsible for maintaining the land in support of the installation’s training mission. Where land has been has been degraded and in need of rehabilitation, ITAM teammembers will sow seeds and plant a variety of native species to help revegetate the land and return it to a sustainable condition. Typically, that work involves heavy equipment such as tractors, seeders and augers to accomplish the work, but in the Artillery Impact Area, the possibility of unexploded ordnance in the area presented a challenge for reseeding efforts.
JBLM’s Fish and Wildlife Department saw an opportunity to restore native habitat and offered to contribute seed to the project, if the ITAM team could put together a plan to accomplish it. As luck would have it, a recent project spawned a solution.
ITAM had just finished a vegetation clearing project at the request of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ryan Breithaupt, 16th CAB, and ITAM coordinator Sally Jones reached out to him with a unique request. Jones floated the idea of using the brigade’s helicopters to safely seed the impacted area, and Breithaupt was immediately interested and willing to use the seeding effort as a training exercise for his team.
After a few false starts due to bad weather, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Grace Gray, a pilot with the 16th CAB, and her crew, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Rex and Sgt. Sullivan, successfully got the ITAM staff into the air and helped seed four sites with a total of 400 pounds of native grass seed.
It was an innovative and new approach in land rehabilitation for all involved in the project. Gray has since offered to fly the ITAM staff over the site to monitor how the seed is establishing itself into the spring season.