WNG preps for wildfires

By J.M. Simpson on May 24, 2022

The State of Washington knows the value of the lessons learned by members of the Washington National Guard (WNG) in protecting property and lives in preparation for this summer's wildfires.

Last Sunday instructors with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) instructed approximately 200 members of the Guard during a field exercise in using fire shelters, digging fire lines, and spraying water.

Prior to the day-long exercise, the soldiers and airmen had completed 50 hours of on-line instruction. At the end of the exercise, they received their red cards, signifying they have the training, experience and physical fitness to fight wildfires.

"I volunteered to do this; it's something that I've kind of been wanting to do," commented Master Sgt. Samantha Stewart as she wielded a combi tool to dig a fire line.

"It's a very versatile and valuable tool," commented Charley Burns, a member of the Orting Valley Fire & Rescue Department. "It's a combination shovel and pick, and it is very good for working up a sweat on a cool rainy day like today," he added with a smile.

The DNR Wildfire is the state's largest fire department, with more than 1,300 employees trained and available to fight fires when needed. Since 2013 the DNR and WNG have partnered to prepare Guard members for potential firefighting-related responses.

"There is a great relationship between the Guard and the DNR," said Thomas Kyle-Milward, Wildfire Communications Manager. "We are very grateful for their efforts, and Washington is well served by this joint effort."

In 2021 the state recorded the hottest and driest year on record. A total of 674,249 acres were burned; 88 percent of the wildfires were human caused; 12 percent were caused by lightning strikes; 44 of the fires were classified as "large fires"; and in burning a total of 107,118 acres, the Schneider Spring fire was the state's largest.

Five years ago, the National Guard nationwide spent approximately 14,000 personnel hours fighting wildfires. By last year, that had increased to 170,000 hours. Since 2013, more than 4,500 WNG members have been activated to fight wildfires. In 2021, 100 Guard members were activated.

"We have been here to answer the call during wildfire season in the past," Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general, said in an earlier interview. "We are getting our Guardsmen ready now, trained, equipped and on standby for when they get the call."

According to Kyle-Milward, the DNR is projecting that due to this year's wet spring June will not pose a serious fire threat. 

"In July and August, though, we see the potential for wildfires in the eastern and central parts of the state; anything can happen," he said.

Not far from where Stewart was digging, Staff Sgt. Jimmy Brown climbed into a fire shelter, tucked it in around himself, and then planted himself face down in the dirt.

"The training is great," he said from inside the shelter, "and we are being well prepared to meet what this summer may bring."