BROOKINGS, Ore., Sept. 11, 2017 — A sky full of ash looms overhead while Oregon Army and Air National Guardsmen work around the clock to help contain the threat of fires consuming the Oregon hills near here since July.
As of Sept. 8, nearly 600 Oregon National Guardsmen had volunteered to join the fight against wildfires across the state, working alongside local, state and federal agencies to battle one of the worst fire seasons in Oregon's history.
The largest of these fires, the Chetco Bar Fire, was started by a lightning strike near the Chetco River in July and continues to burn southern Oregon in the rural areas around the town of Brookings. With a total of 182,284 acres burned so far, relief crews are working nonstop to contain the threat and prevent it from spreading and endangering local populations and structures.
"Every day, on the way out to the fire lines, we pass through the town of Brookings and the locals are always waving at us with smiles on their faces," said Army Spc. Isaiah Wunische, a human resource specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 218th Field Artillery Regiment. "They constantly give praises, and their support has rallied our troops here and helped keep morale extremely high."
Wunische said that most of the other Oregon National Guard personnel working alongside him were also called onto State Active Duty orders for 21 days. The troops spent their first five days at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training academy in Salem, Oregon, earning their certifications to go out on the fire lines and fight the fires.
"I was more than willing to come help out my state when they needed it the most and the training we received at the DPSST was great at preparing us to help our fellow Oregonians in need," Wunische said.
Ensuring soldiers and airmen can remain on the fire lines has been the responsibility of medics like Army Sgt. K-Cee Sperry, a combat medic with Company C, 141st Brigade Support Battalion. Sperry and her team have been able to triage minor medical ailments for their fellow guardsmen at the Chetco Bar Fire, such as blisters and rolled ankles.
"This is my second time supporting the wildfire season and it has been a fantastic experience," Sperry said. "We have been resourcing with the civilian medical teams out here to ensure that all personnel and supply needs are met and the soldiers can get back out on the fire lines [as soon as possible] to continue doing their job."
Sperry said that challenges and experiences like this are why she and many others joined the National Guard. Being able to support fellow Oregonians and troops in order to give back has been the most rewarding aspect of the experience, she added.
Soldiers and airmen from all corners of Oregon have volunteered to help out with this year's fire season and the team at the Chetco Bar Fire has been under the leadership of the military liaison, Army Maj. Christopher Markesino, commander of Charlie Company, 141st Brigade Support Battalion.
A total of 240 Army and Air National Guardsmen from 14 different units have come together at the Chetco Bar Fire, and Markesino said they have been able to seamlessly mesh together and do an outstanding job at working together to support the fire relief.
"The National Guard's presence here has focused on supporting the incident commander and firefighters of the city of Brookings with putting out the fire and traffic assistance points," he said.
Markesino has worked side-by-side with many civil authorities in the incident command post and he said the experience has been extremely educational and fulfilling because they are very professional and supportive of the National Guard's mission there.
"I feel that we [the National Guard] are best suited to help in these types of disasters because this is our home and we will fight harder for our home than anyone else will," he said. "We would not be able to do this without the support and understanding we receive from our employers and families."
Every year Oregon wildfires demand a lot from local, state and federal agencies that are in place to handle these types of disasters, but not every fire season requires a large call-up of National Guard firefighters.
One veteran of the Oregon fire season, Adrian Torres, who works for the Oregon Department of Forestry as a wild lands fires specialist, said he has enjoyed being able to reminisce about his eight years in the Marine Corps while working with the National Guard troops during the fire seasons.
"The National Guard supporters who are here to help us have greatly relieved the work load, all while maintaining a super positive atmosphere," Torres said. "The biggest challenge for the National Guard helpers is the stamina involved in fighting a wildfire, but it has been refreshing to see just how motivated and eager these guardsmen have been."
More and more teams will be continuously rotating to and from the Chetco Bar Fire as the blaze continues to burn, but Markesino said that the Oregon fire season is fortunately nearing its end and Oregonians can rest easy knowing that guardsmen are on the scene.