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California State Guard activates O.C.-based unit for disaster response

The California State Guard's Emergency Response Command practices operating a traffic control post.
Members of the California State Guard’s Emergency Response Command practice operating a traffic control post April 24 at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos.
(California State Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Bernadette Ramirez)

The California State Guard is standing-up two volunteer units exclusively tasked with responding to natural disasters and civil unrest, following the busiest year for state service members since the Korean War.

A 200-member contingent called Team Shield will train and muster as a security force at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos. During wildfires and civil unrest they could be deployed throughout the state to assist police agencies with traffic control and manning checkpoints.

By June, another 150 volunteers with Team Blaze will make up a firefighting task force that trains alongside Cal Fire to staff hand crews. These firefighting ranks are slated to grow to 300 by next year.

Maj. Gen. Jay Coggan, commanding general of the California State Guard, said he envisions the teams as a “release valve” for a California National Guard that has been increasingly tapped for state missions while also training for combat deployments.

“There’s no indication that this is going to subside, especially in the natural disaster area,” Coggan said. “I think this is what we have and will have for a long time.”

The State Guard’s activation of the two-team Emergency Response Command on Feb. 20 was largely prompted by the increasing severity and number of the state’s wildfires, Coggan said.

These citizen soldiers will be led by career public servants: Capt. Christopher Merlo, who is employed as a Los Angeles police lieutenant, and 2nd Lt. Mathew Epstein, who serves as fire chief at the Dry Creek Rancheria Fire Department.

The U.S. Army Reserve is planning to permanently relocate four passenger jets to Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos by this summer, adding about 200 takeoffs and landings per year.

Following a major earthquake, for example, Team Shield would muster at Los Alamitos to be armed and coordinated before moved by truck, helicopter or plane to hard hit areas.

Upon arriving they’d augment police officers, deputy sheriffs and California Highway Patrol. They would not be tasked with patrolling neighborhoods or making arrests, Coggan said, and all members would be state certified on their firearms before hitting the streets.

The State Guard, which has roots going back to 1941, has seen interest from military veterans, retired law enforcement and Californians who never served in uniform. This reserve status would allow them to wear California military fatigues without ever having to leave the state, Coggan said.

While the Orange County Fire Authority has not requested National Guard assistance on wildfires in the last 10 years, Team Blaze’s formation was welcomed by the county’s top fire chief.

“We are pleased the state is taking measures to address the current shortfall in hand crew firefighters through an innovative program such as California State Guard’s Team Blaze,” Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said in a prepared statement.

“Nearly 10,000 wildfires burned more than 4.2 million acres in 2020 — making it the largest wildfire season in California. All predictions point to another tough wildfire season ahead, and we welcome these valuable resources.”

California State Guard Cpl. Nestor Ayson and his partner check a driver’s identification.
California State Guard Cpl. Nestor Ayson and his partner check a driver’s identification while the state guard’s Emergency Response Command trains to operate a traffic control post April 24 at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos.
(California State Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Bernadette Ramirez)

The number of available prison inmate hand crews available to Cal Fire in early April was a little more than a third of the total seen three years ago, a department spokesperson said. The dearth in manpower is partly due to changes in state law that shifted custody of many inmates eligible for fire service to the county jail systems.

Although Team Blaze will be based in Northern California, members will regularly visit Los Alamitos to train with Team Shield. Commanders anticipate about 70% of the members from both contingents will be Southern California residents.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t requested security forces from the National Guard in recent memory, a department spokesperson said. Sheriff Don Barnes didn’t respond to requests for comment on the launch of Team Shield.

Orange County has historically benefited from a robust mutual aid system to deploy officers and deputy sheriffs from police agencies throughout Southern California to protests and natural disasters. The State Guard will still be ready if Orange County calls for state assistance, commanders said.

“Whether or not you need us today, don’t be so convinced that you’ll never need us,” Coggan said.

During the pandemic, Orange County requested the National Guard’s assistance with food distribution to seniors and staffing food banks. County officials also trained with the Guard a few years ago on how to set up and run an emergency supplies point of distribution at Orange County Great Park.

Amid all of these humanitarian missions, soldiers with the California National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade were training in April on UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters at Fort Hood, Texas, ahead of a deployment to the Middle East.

The State Guard’s expansion is aimed in part in preventing soldiers from burning out as federal and state missions bump into each other.

“The men and women of the National Guard are tired and beat up, and the State Guard are here to help relieve them,” Coggan said. “The reality is if our people are capable of making their lives easier we’re absolutely here.”

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to TimesOC.

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