Marines Set Out to Battle . . . Fires
Nearly 580 Camp Pendleton Marines on Friday prepared for the kind of battle many of them least expected: fighting forest fires that have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres across the West.
The Marines, mostly infantry units from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, will deploy today near Mt. Tower, nine miles south of Ukiah, Ore., where they will help fight a wildfire that has already burned more than 45,000 acres and threatens homes, historic structures, wildlife habitat and a resort.
About 950 firefighters from around the country are already working to contain this wildfire, one of about 10 major fires in Oregon that have burned more than 200,000 acres this month. The military crews are needed either to back up firefighters already on the scene or replace them, said Mike Smith, a firefighter from the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates firefighting efforts.
“We have more fires than people to contain” them, said Smith, who spent Friday training Marines in the basic skills of firefighting. “We only call out the military when we have the highest level of depletion of our crews and resources.”
The Camp Pendleton Marines will begin about 30 days of back-breaking work in the Umatilla National Forest, digging out fires that continue to burn underground, shoveling fire breaks and eventually fighting small blazes.
“We’d rather do this than fight someone else’s battle,” said 25-year-old Cpl. Hector Carrasco, who was also part of a Marine unit from Camp Pendleton called upon in 1994 to help fight fires in Montana and Washington. “We’re doing this for our own country.”
During Friday’s training, firefighters from the interagency fire center taught Marines techniques that could save their lives should they be overrun by wind-whipped flames.
Donning fireproof tarps--known among veteran firefighters as “Shake ‘n Bake bags,"--Marines learned how to cocoon themselves in the portable shelters, which can withstand temperatures as high as 600 degrees and keep the air cool inside so it won’t sear their lungs.
The Marines could also face such hazards as temperatures above 100 degrees, smoke inhalation, falling trees and swarms of bees stirred up from digging up brush and soil.
But that isn’t deterring many of the Marines, some of whom hail from the eight Western states now faced with the worst wildfires witnessed in 27 years, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Seal, commanding officer of the battalion.
“They’ll work like crazy and then be thrown into more demanding firefighting later,” Seal said. “They’re in good physical shape, they’re motivated and they’ve got command experience. They’ll do very, very well.”
Firefighter Ray Johnson, one of the lead coordinators from the interagency fire center, agreed.
“They’re one of our most excellent resources,” Johnson said, adding that the Marines will most likely be sent to other fires throughout the West should this one be contained.
For Marines like 22-year-old Cpl. Donald Allen, who just returned from a six-month deployment in the western Pacific Ocean in May with the rest of the battalion, it’s just part of serving his country.
“If it needs to be done, I’d rather do it than have some family’s house burn down,” Allen said. “I’d want someone else to do it for my parents.”