By MELANTHIA MITCHELL
Associated Press Writer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. (AP) - A small group of Washington National
Guard members dug a fire line and learned to mix fire retardant
foam on Thursday as they trained at this Army post south of Seattle
for what many fear could be a long and difficult wildfire season.
The field activities were part of a five-day training this week,
scheduled in response to Gov. Christine Gregoire's request this
year that the National Guard be trained prior to being activated
for deployment to a wildfire. Gregoire in March declared a drought
emergency in the state.
It's the first time the state Guard will certify 15 Army and Air
National Guard members for wildland firefighting so they can then
train roughly 100 more of their peers in basic firefighting skills.
"When and if we do get the call to get mobilized for a forest
fire or a wildland fire, then we're already ahead of the ball,"
said Lt. Jefferson Mason, a coordinator with the National Guard's
Joint Operations Center at Camp Murray, which oversees emergency
deployments of the Army and Air National Guard.
Mason said the course costs about $9,000. It's taught by two
contracted firefighting instructors and includes training support
from the state Department of Natural Resources.
If additional soldiers are needed on the fire lines this year,
National Guard officials have identified two, 250-member crews to
be trained by DNR, likely at the Yakima Training Center in Eastern
Washington.
In the past, basic firefighting skills have been taught by
Natural Resources' employees or contractors. But it's usually done
in response to a fire - rather than before one - and has required
pulling vital human resources from the fire lines, said Joel
Rogauskas, Natural Resources' interagency fire training program
manager in Olympia.
When responding to wildfires, DNR normally relies first on its
own employees, seasonal firefighters and contract crews, as well as
inmates from the Corrections Department.
The National Guard is brought in only as a last resort, and in
the past has normally served only the support role of preparing
camps and transporting firefighters.
Thursday's training is what traditional wildland firefighters
would receive, Rogauskas said. It included digging fire lines and
learning to use hand tools such as shovels and pulaskies - hybrid
versions of a shovel and a hoe. Soldiers were also trained to use
basic firing devices "to fight fire with fire," he said, most
commonly a drip torch and fusees, which look like a standard road
flare.
This week's training gives the soldiers the necessary background
to then train their peers for Level 1 support: setting up base
camps; transporting supplies and personnel to fire lines; and
communications.
After watching instructor Larry Scott demonstrate how to use a
fusee to backburn a small patch of dry grass, soldiers trekked a
few yards down a gravel road to begin digging a fire line among the
towering pine trees and thick overgrowth of scotch broom.
"Bump! When I say 'Bump!", that means you move up," shouts
Mike Gouette, who has 40-plus years of firefighting experience and
is a retired fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service.
Like Scott, he's now a contractor with Incident Management Services
and Training in Edmonds. "Loud! You gotta be loud, gotta be heard
over the fire folks!"
Soldiers hacked and shoveled an 8-inch swath through the
undergrowth, snaking their way through brush, cutting back foliage
and unearthing the dark, moist soil beneath to deprive an oncoming
fire of any fuel resources. Reminding them to stay equal distances
- about 10 feet apart - Gouette bellows, "It looks like kind of an
articulated centipede when we get going."
Sgt. Tiffanie Eilers, a heavy equipment operator with the 254th
RED HORSE Squadron, volunteered for the course for the experience.
"It's something that a lot of people don't take the time to
think about. Then in a time of need, where do you get your people
from? When I was given the opportunity to be a part of this I
jumped at it," said Eilers, 27, of Orting.
Wearing green camouflage fatigues, black leather boots, a yellow
hard hat and a pair of pearl earrings, the married mother of two
was the only woman among the 15 soldiers trained. Like the others,
she recognizes the danger that comes with the task, but said it's
just part of the job.
"There's definitely some adrenaline involved, but I think in
any goodhearted, good-natured person, what really drives you is to
help and make a difference," she said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)