Fort Irwin firefighters partners in battling wildland blazes

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Fort Irwin Fire Department photo

With a years-long drought affecting the state of California, and an annual fire season, partnerships have been crucial this year in the battle against wildfires.

Partnerships, based on agreements created years ago, allows for several state and federal agencies to request assistance from fire departments in California, said Ray Smith, chief of the Fort Irwin Fire Department.

Smith said the California Mutual Aid Plan, which Fort Irwin is part of, includes: the state of California, Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to a document from California’s Office of Emergency Services, the plan provides for systematic mobilization, organization and operation of necessary fire and rescue resources. Those resources include personnel, apparatus and equipment.

The Fort Irwin Fire Department responds to requests for assistance in fighting wildland fires (also known as wildfires or forest fires) throughout California. The department is prepared to deploy resources on short notice.

“We go within hours, in some cases, after a fire breaks out,” said Smith, who has served at Fort Irwin for 32 years (his first job here was as a photographer).

The fire chief explained a zone coordinator for the state of California Office of Emergency Services puts together a strike team consisting of: five engines from various fire departments in each zone, with each engine having four personnel, including a leader and an assistant leader. A strike team responds to major emergencies.

Fort Irwin typically provides an engine with four personnel, or a strike team leader, said Smith. The engine that goes out to wildland fires is a type 3; Fort Irwin has two such engines.

Personnel and one engine, from here, formed part of a strike team assisting with fighting the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest in June.

Fort Irwin also assisted with 39 days of service at the Lowell Fire, the Humboldt Fire, the Walker Fire and the Rough Fire, said Smith. The 39 days were split between two crews and an engine that logged 4,000 miles of travel. One firefighter served as a strike team leader trainee, Sept. 12-20, at the Butte Fire – where he also performed tasks that can lead to full certification.

Recently, Installation Management Command (the Army’s organization that oversees garrisons), issued an order authorizing IMCOM fire suppression leadership – strike team leaders and crew bosses – to assist with wildland fires.

Smith said the authorization helps in crisis situations and lets communities know they can depend on the Department of Defense.

He explained that currently there is not a DOD order for firefighters. His department of 75 personnel, including 51 in fire suppression and seven in fire prevention, remains prepared to support the California plan. The fire season is not over and Smith anticipates being called again to assist.

“With the California Master Mutual Aid Plan program, that’s something we’ve been a part of for decades,” Smith said. “It’s good to go out and help other communities. It portrays the Army and Fort Irwin in a positive light, being there and being helpful – and it’s the right thing to do.”