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During COVID-19 crisis, Cal Guardsmen prepare for wildfires

Cal Guardsmen practice cutting fire lines during hand crew training at Camp Roberts on May 14, 2020.

Cal Guardsmen practice cutting fire lines during hand crew training at Camp Roberts on May 14, 2020.

CAMP ROBERTS, Calif.— As the COVID-19 crisis continues, so does the threat from wildfires that flare up across California, usually from summer through fall. Over the past few years, the state has seen a series of devastating fires that have destroyed communities and taken dozens of lives. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County was the deadliest in California history, killing 86 people.

Currently, several hundred California National Guardsmen are activated for humanitarian missions as part of the COVID-19 response. They've been assisting food banks with food distribution, providing health screening and medical support, setting up shelters and serving as linguists. Meanwhile, preparations for wildfire season are also underway.

On May 11-15, over 100 Soldiers and Airmen with the California Guard were on Camp Roberts for hand crew training with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). CAL FIRE Military Crew Advisors (MCADs) instructed the Guardsmen on several wildland firefighting subjects, such as team organization, safety skills, driver's training, using fire shelters, chopping logs and digging trenches.

The Guardsmen who participated in the training were organized into five hand crews. They will augment Task Force Rattlesnake teams in Fresno, Monterey, Auburn and Redding, where they will clear potential wildfire fuels and be on call to serve as hand crews in support of CAL FIRE operations.

"We're doing proactive prevention," said Task Force Rattlesnake commander Maj. Robert Langston. "We're doing wildfire fuel reduction to protect vital infrastructure and augmenting first responders."

On May 14, as part of the hand crew training, Spc. Jonathan Botting from the 235th Engineer Company used a Pulaski hand tool to cut a fire break with fellow crew members on the dry hills of Camp Roberts. He said he was proud to be serving on a hand crew and looking forward to helping out during the fire season. "I think it's going to be a great experience, both physically and for the camaraderie. It's a good group. We already have a good bond."

Hand crews are critical to helping CAL FIRE contain wildfires. The work is arduous, often requiring hikes into remote areas wearing personal protective equipment and carrying gear. The crews mop up fires, put out hotspots, cut trenches and fire breaks and remove brush and other wildfire fuels.

First Lt. Michael Lyons, a platoon leader in the 235th Engineer Company, and a civilian firefighter in Sacramento, said his Soldiers are up for the challenge. "They're built to perform," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Alben Camaya, from the 235 Engineers, is the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of one of the hand crews. He said the first two days of classroom training were a little stressful, but his troops were happy now that they were out in the field. "We, as combat engineers, we love to train in the field. We love hard work."

The training this year was a little different because of the extra health and safety measures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Guardsmen wore masks when close to each other and maintained social distance.

"COVID has proposed challenges to us to adhere to the guidelines set by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)," said CAL FIRE Division Chief Damon Godden. "The Guard has stepped up to collaborate with CAL FIRE to adhere to the guidelines through frequent washing of hands, social distancing, wearing masks and separating crews."

Eighty of the Cal Guardsmen participating in the training at Camp Roberts were Soldiers from the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team's 40th Brigade Support Battalion and the 49th Military Police Brigade's 579th Engineer Battalion. Twenty-one Airmen from all five California Air National Guard wings also took part in the training. Also, six California State Guard members were on the hand crews—a first for the organization.

On May 14, Col. Richard Mifsud, the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team commander, was on Camp Roberts checking in on 35 of his Soldiers on the hand crews.

Mifsud's brigade will supply six Force Packages of 80 Soldiers each throughout this fire season.

"In California, we've got experience with fires, floods and earthquakes," he said. "With COVID-19, it's a different type of disaster in a disaster-rich state. It's delayed our training a bit, but we'll be ready for fire season."

Lt. Col. Leslie Palmer, 40th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) commander, was with Mifsud visiting the troops. "As the BSB, we've done hand crew training before," Palmer said. "Our Soldiers have wanted to get involved. We had more volunteers than positions. The fact that they're out here, I'm immensely proud of them. They're hard chargers."

Mifsud said that the California National Guard and CAL FIRE had developed a great relationship. "In emergency management, it's all about relationships," he said. "By maintaining a great relationship with CAL FIRE, we're able to supply them with personnel to meet their needs. They supply us with firefighting equipment, and together we're able to protect our communities in the state in which we serve."

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