REDDING, Calif.–First on scene are the California Army National Guard’s precious assets, its air power: the CH-47 Chinooks and HH-60 Black Hawks and their operating crews. Intelligence units are aboard, later joined by military police and engineers. Infantrymen, such as artillerymen and cavalrymen, are on the way.
The California Army National Guard’s forces are on the state battlefield again as the most threatening enemy in 2018 — the Carr Fire — bears down on this Northern California city. And it’s coming quickly, faster than lots of previous wild fires.
“It’s erratic. It’s a fire that’s unpredictable and extremely dangerous,” said Scott McLean, information officer of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, the brave agency at the helm of the firestorm. “We got (the California National Guard) up and running quickly. We’re expending our assets to the fullest. We need the Soldiers to supplement our emergency crews so we can contain this fire.”
In less than a week the Carr Fire grew to nearly 90,000 acres and destroyed 500-plus structures. Thousands were ordered to evacuate. After six days, CAL FIRE contained less than 10 percent of it, and firefighters contemplated how it jumped an area of the Sacramento River that was wider than a football field.
“Like I said,” McLean replied, “erratic.”
The California National Guard’s air assets were mission ready at the Redding Municipal Airport, but hampered by weather conditions. The huge fire sent up massive smoke clouds, darkening the sky to where the sun is bright red when visible. At nighttime, wind carries ashes to other Shasta County cities to where parked vehicles were blanketed overnight.
Two military police units — the 270th and 870th — were rotating Soldiers at traffic points. The MPs were diverting traffic at roads blocked off to the public. On the first day, MPs were stationed at about a dozen areas. That number grew to nearly 24 sites the following day.
“We can take care of the TCPs (traffic control points) so that the sheriffs and local police can monitor the areas that are off limits,” said 270th’s Sgt. Gustavo Lucatero, a sheriff in his civilian life. “This is something we can do to help the community maintain order. People had to leave their homes due to the fire. We’re all helping to keep the city safe.”
The 49th’s subordinate — the 578th Engineer Battalion — activated one of its companies and drew troops from another unit. They have qualified heavy equipment operators who were projected to drive trailers, bulldozers and other transportation assets for this mission.
“We’ll also be helping at traffic points,” said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Julian Navarro, first sergeant, 649th Engineer Company. “We’ll be doing our best to help where we can.”
Military police were running 12-hour shifts throughout Redding, checking identities and answering basic questions. Emergency and recovery agencies, like PG&E (private business Pacific Gas and Electric) were allowed through the Guard’s checkpoints. But vehicles without significant recognition were often stopped, and Soldiers questioned driver’s whereabouts.
“We’re so glad the military’s here. We’re comfortable knowing our homes and businesses are safe,” a Redding resident said as she passed a California Army National Guard-manned checkpoint. “All I know is this fire is too big to control. Everyone’s doing what they can.”
“When the Army’s here, that means it’s pretty serious,” Jerry J. Smith, also a Redding resident, added. “But it also means our city’s protected. We’re glad you’re here.”
The California Army National Guard’s 185th Military Police Battalion situated itself at the Shasta District Fairgrounds in Anderson, Calif., and set up its operations center to coordinate all missions. The bulk of troops occupy the Shasta Speedway, an auto racetrack on the fairgrounds. Troops are housed in temporary shelters when not on mission.
“It’s been a busy year for the (49th) brigade and for the California National Guard overall,” said Col. Robert Paoletti, 49th Military Police Brigade commander. “Our presence shows we’re helping the community in this time of need. We’re going to do our jobs professionally so local law enforcement can handle their responsibilities.”
More than 500 California Guardsmen from the 143rd Infantry Regiment were training for hand crew missions. Teams will be reporting to Redding in the upcoming days, adding to Cal Guard’s support for ground operations. The hand crews will work areas already burned by the Carr Fire, extinguishing hots spots to prevent fire flare-ups.
The Carr Fire is one of more than a dozen active wild fires currently scorching California, and it’s not usually until August (or later) when major fires historically occur.
Per CAL FIRE, from Jan. 1 to July 22, 2018, there have been about 3,400 fires that burned about 100,000 acres. There have been more than 4,000 California fires this year combined, according to the U.S. Forest Service.