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Storm cleanup moves to JBLM training ranges

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After the January snow and ice storm, 1st Lt. Alex Wingate, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, knew that the ranges his 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division unit was scheduled to train on in February were going to be a mess.

"It was clear early on that it was bad and it immediately became ‘how far can I drive in before I can get more assets out there?'" Wingate said.

For two weeks leading up to the training, Wingate, along with fellow members of the Tomahawk Battalion and a small team of engineers from the 18th Engineer Company, using axes and chain saws, worked to clear large trees and branches from about 10 roads.

"More often than not it was just one ax as the three chain saws dulled out," Wingate said. This left it up to the strength of everyone, from sergeants to majors, to make manageable paths for the rest of the battalion to complete its mission the following week.

While Joint Base Lewis-McChord itself might have returned to its normal appearance, the 68,000 acres of ranges and training areas continue to be riddled with fallen trees, and likely will be for some time.

"The last time a big storm like this happened it took six months to get everything cleared. It's a long process to get things cleared and make it so that if you drive down a trail you won't run into a downed tree," Integrated Training Area Management Coordinator Inger Gruhn said.

Though the living, working and shopping areas on the installation got most of the attention, 2-23 Inf. will be far from the only organization whose training is affected by downed trees and power lines on ranges. Power was not fully restored to Ranges 91 through 93, the primary machine gun ranges, until Feb. 1. Directorate of Public Works employees spent more than two days repairing nearly three miles of downed lines.

DPW acknowledged that maintaining trees on main roads, specifically cutting back limbs from power lines, helped keep the lights on throughout the main areas of the installation, but can't necessarily do similar maintenance along the many roads in the training areas.

"You can't cut down a 100-ft. tree because it's 50 feet from the power line," Ron Cottrill, Exterior Electric Section Supervisor, said of trees near the ranges. "When the trees came down, they snapped poles in two. These weren't just limbs falling, they were trees."

DPW Utilities Branch Project Manager Richard Tandy hopes to have JBLM completely cleared by the beginning of April. His crews are working overtime to clear limbs and trees in high-trafficked areas, like parks near housing areas. His crews clear debris in the order that they receive requests.

With so many large trees damaged by the storm, Tandy and his crew determined which trees were most dangerous and cut those down immediately, but he plans to consult with arborist to help access the damage on remaining trees.

"We are getting to a mode where we must bring a professional in; we don't want to cut down hundreds of trees on base if don't have to," the utilities branch manager said.

Tandy is especially appreciative of the JBLM servicemembers who helped clear the installation. Many have taken multiple trips to the storm debris drop site near East Gate, hauling limbs from company areas.

Gruhn advises Soldiers going out to the ranges to be prepared to do manual labor to get there. In many cases, they will be forced to clear a path to get there.

"Everything is open but it may be a challenge getting there," Gruhn said. She added that major roads are cleared but the smaller ones are not, as Wingate discovered, who prioritized road clearing based on the getting to and from the site and then making the training easier.

"For the amount of area we needed to clean, we were pretty successful. The 18th Engineers were really helpful. They didn't need to go out there, but it made our lives a lot easier," Wingate said.

He expected to finish clearing all roads the Tomahawks needed their first day out, but with added manpower, he expected the work to go more quickly than during his previous trips - although he anticipated he might not have more than one sharp ax.

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