Portland, Ore. --
It’s Sunday morning and Portland Air National Guard Base, like much of Portland and the surrounding area, lies under a thick blanket of smoke. Guardsmen from the 142nd Wing convene in a conference room where they’ll learn what the next few weeks will look like.
The Oregon Air National Guard is sending 125 members, 75 of which are from the 142nd Wing at Portland ANG Base. 50 individuals are deploying from Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base in Klamath Falls, Ore.
Oregon Air Guardsmen are deploying in support of OPLAN (Operation Plan) Smokey, an interagency agreement between the Oregon Military Department and the Oregon Department of Forestry which tasks the Oregon National Guard with assisting in the control and containment of wildfires, when called on by the governor.
These Airmen come from a variety of career backgrounds, spanning the entirety of Air Force career fields. Outside of their AF careers, these Airmen have volunteered and trained in order to serve in support of OPLAN Smokey, in the event that they’re called on to do so.
Over the past several weeks, the American west coast has been plagued by wildfires, and though these fires are a yearly occurrence, this year’s have been particularly bad.
More than 85 wildfires are currently raging across California, Oregon, and Washington. In Oregon alone, 46 fires have burned nearly double the state’s annual average acreage. As of September 13th, there are 35 active fires in Oregon and over 900,000 acres of land burned.
Across the state, the fires have wreaked devastating and unprecedented damage and loss of life. Many people have fled their homes as the fires continue to burn. Since last week, dense smoke has filled the skies over Oregon, causing hazardous air quality levels; currently the worst in the world.
Master Sgt. Haina Searls, an avionics supervisor for the 142nd Maintenance Group, is one of the Airmen tasked with aiding in relief efforts throughout the state. He explains the role volunteers fill in the effort to mitigate these fires.
“We’re checking for hot spots, making sure it’s not going to spark up and cause a spot fire somewhere else,” Says Searls. “A lot of times we might be helping people evacuate out of their homes, making sure they’re out of harm’s way.”
Oregon Air National Guard volunteers may serve their state in several capacities: by aiding fire teams, performing search and recovery, or by providing generalized support to the Joint Operations Center in Salem, Ore. The goal is to better enable civilian entities; be it police, fire fighters, or mortuary affairs, to manage the current crisis.
The volunteers will serve a minimum of 14 days, but could be activated for up to 30 days, so long as their aid is needed.
In addition to the 75 Guardsmen departing the base today, 50 more are anticipated to depart from here on Monday, September 14th.
142nd Wing Emergency Operations Center director, Lt. Col. Anthony Victoria, has been overseeing the Wing’s response effort.
“We have the federal mission. This is the other part of what it means to be in the Guard, that’s to support our state and local communities,” says Victoria.
The Guard is really about community members serving the community. These Guardsmen live and serve throughout the state of Oregon. Many of them have been negatively impacted by these fires.
Lt. Col. Victoria remarks on the attitude and sense of duty the volunteers have shown in the wake of the recent personnel activations and mobilizations.
“Their professionalism, the focus that they put on it, and their performance have been completely outstanding across the board,” says Victoria. “It just demonstrates that we’re there for our communities when they need us.”