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Training prepares Oregon Guardsmen for fighting fires

SALEM, Ore. -- A combined force of 105 Oregon Army and Air National Guardsmen prepared to deploy to the High Cascade Complex Fire in southern Oregon, while completing one-day refresher training at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training in Salem, Oregon, Aug. 15, 2017.

The National Guard was activated by Governor Kate Brown to assist Oregon Department of Forestry with firefighting efforts. 

The Department of Forestry has an ongoing agreement known as Operation Plan Smokey, which stipulates the details of how service members and assets will be utilized to assist in annual firefighting efforts.

Missing were the service branch and name-tapes on military uniforms, as the members were evenly outfitted in their ODF firefighting yellow shirts and forest green pants issued at the DPSST.

The Citizen-Soldiers and Citizen-Airmen from units throughout the state, spent the day working in mixed 20-member teams; reviewing safety equipment and procedures, using firefighting tools in the field, and enhancing team-building techniques.

During a mid-morning briefing, Maj. Gen. Michael Stencel, The Adjutant General, Oregon, and Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Foesch, Senior Enlisted Leader for the Oregon National Guard, thanked the Guardsmen for stepping up on short-notice as the fire dangers intensified around the region.

“You’ve often heard me say that we have two Commanders in Chief, the primary being the Governor of Oregon, so when we were looking at these threats we thought that it would be a couple of weeks away before any potential activation might happen,” Stencel explained. “Yet the (wildfire condition) changes were quick and it prompted us to move quickly as well.”

In late August of 2015, the Oregon National Guard activated Soldiers and Airmen to support the Canyon Creek Complex fires near John Day and Grizzly Bear Complex near Elgin, Oregon, when firefighting resources were stretched beyond capacity. Prior to deploying to the fire lines, Guardsmen took part in a five-day training course at DPSST. Tuesday’s one-day refresher course enhanced the certification that all 105 members hold before they re-engage new challenges now near Crater Lake, Oregon.

“As in the case in 2015, we are at our highest preparedness level not only nationally, but here in the geographic area of Oregon and Washington,” said Ron Graham, Deputy Chief of Fire Protection, Oregon Department of Forestry.

Briefing the Guardsmen during training, Graham emphasized the responsibility that Oregon Guardsmen encompass with the activation. “You guys play a critical role as all resources are stretched. You are the surge capacity going into an environment you normally don’t work in, yet are prepared to take on.”

A majority of the firefighters volunteering for this duty originated from various military occupational skill sets as well as civilian trades. When called up two years ago, the teams were formed based on traditional branch structures of Army with Army, and Air with Air components. With this activation, the teams are merged to build continuity while sharing ‘best practice’ techniques from the field.

“I feel a lot more prepared this time,” said Senior Airman Sean O’Neal, assigned to the Oregon Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Squadron. Having just graduated from Central Washington University, the deployment fit perfectly into his post-college summer plans.

“The schedule two years ago had us working 10-12 hours a day. Now I know what to expect, what to bring and the duty assignment,” he said.

For Oregon Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Daniel Schrum, assigned to Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 218th Field Artillery Regiment, his previous experience as a member of the Oregon National Guard CERFP allows him to build on his experience working with the Air Force.

“The firefighting job is really fulfilling and a change in pace from my normal job,” said Schrum. With over 10 years in the military, previous deployments in 2009 to Iraq and the Canyon Creek Complex Fire, provide opportunities to be a leader in the field.

As a squad leader for Team One, Schrum will be responsible for six to seven members working the fire lines. “I feel like the training helps us get to know each other before we leave and reinforces are past training,” he said.

The National Guard mission is enhanced with joint Army-Air firefighting deployments. The teams build on past experience but also shape new approaches to problem solving as they happen under stressful conditions. The biggest concerns are for safety procedures and being good ‘Battle Buddies’ and ‘Wingmen.'

Before Chief Master Sgt. Larry Kellor joined the Oregon Air National Guard in the mid 1990’s to maintain F-15 Eagles, he was a crew chief with the Oregon Army National Guard launching observational OV-1 Mohawks. With the firefighting activation, Keller is able to rediscover “Army roots,” functioning as the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge.

“We’re all red card certified and the one day of training allows us to get our gear and everyone on the same page,” he said. “In a way, it feels like yesterday we were out here training (in 2015).”

With his dual Army and Air Force background, Kellor is functioning as the First Sergeant for the activation. Making sure the meals and bed-downs are secured, daily personnel issues, insuring safety procedures are followed and keeping leadership aware of the issues with the teams on the fire lines.

“The fire shelter training is the most import aspect of the one-day training and to re-enforce that piece is critical, but overall, I’m excited to take this joint team to the field,” he said.

Like many of the Soldiers and Airmen training in Salem, Lt. Col. Martin Balakas, 173rd Fighter Wing Logistics Readiness Squadron commander, sees the joint team approach as a win-win.

“This really exemplifies the total-force model of the National Guardsman and Citizen-Soldier concept,” he explained. “These deployments really build up junior NCO’s and junior officers, as they learn to network, build relationship between the two branches and develop real world responsibilities.”

While watching the Guardsmen train with the DPSST staff, Balakas noted that the training also reinforces previous training and working in the field. Staff members broke the teams up in various areas, while coaching groups through a variety of skill stations, allowing team leaders to quickly take over their roles.

“We know conditions out in the field are bad, but we have gotten fantastic support from the staff at DPSST and the incredible assistance from the Oregon Department of Forestry,” said Balakas. “With the training and previous experience, we know how to get to the fire lines quicker and be a much more effective force for the governor, and ultimately, helping suppress (forest) fires throughout the state.”