Wildland firefighters support Army’s mission

| March 23, 2018 | 0 Comments

Photo by Kayla Overton, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Public Affairs
USAG-HI wildland firefighters prepare for a controlled burn of Guinea grass near the Schofield Barracks main range in May 2017. These annual controlled burns cut down the amount of fire “fuel” and reduce the chances of an out-of-control fire. The controlled burns are regulated by state and federal agencies and must comply with safety standards.

Karen A. Iwamoto
Staff Writer

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii’s 10 wildland firefighters do triple duty – at least – to support the Army’s mission in Hawaii.

The only full-time wildland firefighters in the state, they help keep the community safe, they ensure Soldiers are able to train, and they play a role in protecting endangered species.

“There’s a lot of science and technology that goes into what we do, a lot of factors impact how big a fire gets, how fast it travels,” USAG-HI Wildland Fire Chief Charles Gibbs said.

Bryson Kamakura, firefighter, Army Wildland Fire, monitors a piece of land that’s part of a prescribed burn, May 16. The firefighters safely burned invasive Guinea grass before the dryer summer season to prevent larger brush fires and better promote forest health. (Photo courtesy of Army Wildland Fire)

“What we don’t want is an out-of control fire. If we get an out-of-control fire, we use more resources, like helicopter drops, and we shut down the ranges, so there’s no training for the Soldiers,” he added. “That causes a domino effect because each unit schedules their training ahead of time. If there’s a fire, they’re on hold and the unit scheduled after them is pushed back.”

An out-of-control-fire also increases the danger to people, property, cultural resources and a number of endangered species. Under USAG-HI’s Integrated Wildfire Management Plan, wildland firefighters must balance protecting all of these.

To minimize the risk of an out-of-control fire, the wildland firefighters monitor atmospheric conditions around the main firing range on Schofield Barracks – where annual records have shown fires are most likely to occur – and work with the Range Control Office to make sure Soldiers use the range under safe fire conditions.

To determine safe fire conditions are met, they use what’s called a Burning Index. This index measures factors such as ambient temperature, wind, weather and “fuel loads” (e.g., plants, other flammable material) to help them estimate the effort it would take to contain a fire on a given day.

They also maintain fire and fuel breaks and fire access roads, which help to ensure they can reach a fire and keep it contained within boundaries.

And finally, they plan and conduct annual controlled burns – what Gibbs called “fighting fire with fire” – to reduce the amount of highly flammable guinea grass, an invasive species that was likely introduced as an agricultural grazing crop but has since spread beyond farmland in the area. Reducing the fuel load further reduces the chances of an out-of-control fire.

It also benefits endangered species, said Justin Turnbo, USAG-HI’s wildland fire management officer, because the controlled burning of guinea grass may give native plants a better chance of re-establishing themselves.

There are approximately 40 endangered plant and animal species on Schofield Barracks, and the wildland firefighters play an integral role in the Army’s effort to safeguard them, said Paul Smith, a biologist with the Environmental Division of USAG-HI’s Directorate of Public Works.

Turbo said that the government’s attitude toward controlled burns has changed over the years.

“Before, it was all about preventing all fires,” he said. “Now, there’s more promotion of the idea that fires are OK, that controlled burns can help. The Army is being proactive by having us go out and do these controlled burns, knowing that without it there would be wildfires.

“Fire is not part of Hawaii’s natural ecosystem,” he added. “But now we have all of this guinea grass, which is a fire-loving plant, and if we didn’t do these controlled burns, we would have more out-of-control fires.”The wildland firefighters are cognizant of the impact fires – even controlled fires –have on the neighboring community, and one way they try to mitigate this is by scheduling them when high school graduations are not underway. This avoids impact during a time of community celebration.

“We try to be empathetic,” Turbo said. “We don’t want to impact the community, especially the elderly and children. We want good conditions, so the smoke climbs high, and there’s a wind to push it out over the ocean.

“Also, if things go bad, there are bad consequences not just for the community but for us,” he added, explaining that the Army must comply with federal laws and regulations or risk paying the price.

In addition to the Endangered Species Act, these regulations include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Sikes Act.

He may also have meant this literally, as there are risks to the firefighters themselves, who are on the front lines of the flames and the smoke.

Because of this, the job is physically demanding.

The wildland firefighters must meet the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s training standards. Like the Soldiers, they adhere to a daily program of physical training – running, sit-ups, pushups, pull-ups and more – and must pass an annual physical exam during which they must walk (but not run) 3 miles in 45 minutes while wearing their firefighting gear, among other tasks.

USAG-HI’s wildland firefighters also work closely with their federal, state and county counterparts through memorandums of agreement that have them pool resources against wildland fires on non-Army land.

By playing this diverse role, wildland firefighters make sure the Army can fulfill its complex mission in Hawaii.

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