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Northern Strike exercise shifts to real-world response

Firefighters from the Michigan Air National Guard’s Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center and the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing respond to a request for mutual-aid support at a massive structure fire in downtown Alpena, Michigan, July 21, 2020.

Firefighters from the Michigan Air National Guard’s Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center and the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing respond to a request for mutual-aid support at a massive structure fire in downtown Alpena, Michigan, July 21, 2020. The fire protection specialists had been supporting exercise Northern Strike 20, the National Guard’s premier annual joint fires readiness event, shifting quickly to assist the response when called upon by local authorities.

ALPENA, Mich. – On the afternoon of July 21, a historic icon of Alpena, Michigan, went up in flames.

The John A. Lau Saloon and Restaurant, a local institution since the late 1800s, was once a favorite hangout for lumberjacks and Great Lakes shipping crews as they passed through Northern Michigan. The building – and nearly 150 years of history – was engulfed by billowing smoke and flames Tuesday afternoon after a few stray welding sparks ignited.

Firefighters from the surrounding community, including nearby Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, were called in to battle the inferno. Part of the National All-Domain Warfighting Center in Northern Michigan, Alpena CRTC is presently hosting portions of exercise Northern Strike 20, the National Guard’s annual premier joint fires readiness event.

“This was one of the largest structural fires I’ve ever responded to,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Clay, a fire protection specialist with the 106th Rescue Wing, Westhampton Beach, New York. “When we arrived, there was heavy smoke pouring out of the front of the building.”

Along with two members of the Michigan Air National Guard, Clay was one of four firefighters from the New York Air National Guard who arrived on-scene to augment local first responders. The New York team is participating in Northern Strike 20 for the last two weeks of July.

Immediately, the entire team switched from exercise scenarios to a real-world response.

“We arrived on-scene as a Rapid Intervention Team, as a backup,” said Clay, “and we quickly realized that more help was needed.”

New York firefighters, Staff Sgt. Frank Quesada and Senior Airman Kerry Schmitt went into the flames to ensure the building had been completely evacuated. The firefighters engaged in what they call a “surround-and-drown” to quell the blaze, switching to a defensive strategy to limit the fire’s spread as an entire block of Alpena’s old town district came under threat.

Quesada, a drill-status Airman with the 106th, is also a full-time firefighter on the New York City Fire Department.

“They did a great job surrounding the building; they were able to protect the other exposures around it very well,” said Clay.

Over a five-hour response period, the team of approximately 40 multi-agency first responders was credited with saving the Thunder Bay Theater, another historic centerpiece of downtown Alpena.

Clay says his team came to Northern Strike because of the exercise’s reputation for practical training opportunities that enhance the overall readiness of each service branch of the U.S. military at premier facilities like Alpena CRTC and Camp Grayling. Military firefighters are continually training to react when called upon to such wide-ranging threats as brush fires, burning fuel, and hazardous material fires. As is often the case in their profession, there was no way to predict the situation they encountered in Alpena Tuesday.

“In my time here, we’ve never had firefighters from visiting units get to participate in a large structure fire in the city of Alpena,” said Mr. Steve Papineau, a crew chief with the Alpena CRTC fire department. “When the local department found out they were working with someone from the New York City Fire Department, they thought that was pretty cool.”

Papineau, who also responded to the call, says the CRTC fire truck poured tens of thousands of water into the blaze.

“We all worked together really well,” he said. “Firefighting is kind of like a brotherhood, so it would be the same if we were at a fire in New York or anywhere else.”

The ability to respond swiftly and adapt to different operating environments is paramount to being ready for anything their challenging profession will through. For military firefighters, that could ultimately mean serving not just at home base but also anywhere around the world in a deployed environment.

“A deployment is our championship – that’s the goal that we’re always preparing for,” said Clay.

Acknowledging the irreplaceable loss of one of the city’s true links to history, for Clay, the mutual-aid response to assist the community of Alpena added a layer of depth to an already rewarding experience at Northern Strike.

“Being able to come to exercises like Northern Strike is great; to get our hands on different equipment in different situations than we’re used to – it’s hugely beneficial, especially for the younger guys on our team,” he said. “Then, to actually respond to a large structure fire in a mutual-aid situation, serving the local community when it needs us, there’s no training more effective than that.”

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