[pct-l] Deployments in Iraq mean fewer firefighters

manhater at gmail.com manhater at gmail.com
Wed Sep 13 22:00:05 CDT 2006

Montana in a tug of war for Guardsmen
Deployments in Iraq mean fewer firefighters

By Alan Wirzbicki, Globe Correspondent  |  June 5, 2005

HELENA, Mont. -- When summer wildfires burn out of control in the vast
forests of the Rocky Mountains, the Montana National Guard has always
been available to act as a fire force of last resort, sending its
soldiers deep into the wilderness to help fire crews, protect
evacuated property, and transport supplies to the front lines.

But as fire season approaches this year, the Montana Guard faces what
its commander describes as an ''unprecedented" shortage of
firefighters and helicopters, prompting the state's governor, Democrat
Brian Schweitzer, to ask the Pentagon to return more of the state's
troops from Iraq this summer for what he fears could be a particularly
dangerous fire season.

''It's dry, it's double dry, it's triple dry," Schweitzer said in an
interview at the state capitol, citing much-lower-than-normal snowfall
across a state that has suffered from drought for the past seven

''Why don't you send Montana's Guardsmen home for July and August? We
have 49 other states. They can rotate at different times. We'll take
up the slack -- for example, at Christmas."

The Pentagon has refused his request. And while state and federal
forest officials in Montana say they are confident they can work
around the shortage of Guard personnel and absence of 10 out of 12 of
the Guard's Black Hawk helicopters, Schweitzer tapped a sense of
anxiety among governors whose troops are fighting the insurgency in
Iraq with no end in sight.

''Many governors look to the National Guard as their contingency
force, be it a hurricane or snow or fires out West," said John Goheen,
communications director of the National Guard Association of the
United States.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, such state missions were the most visible role
played by the National Guard, he said, but that has changed as about
45 percent of the US soldiers in Iraq are Guardsmen, a much greater
percentage than in Vietnam or the 1991 Gulf War.

Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments in Washington, said governors may have to adjust to having
fewer Guardsmen available for tasks such as stacking sandbags and
putting out forest fires.

''I don't anticipate that the governor, or any governor, is going to
get relief any time soon because the insurgency in Iraq doesn't seem
to be abating and because the Guard is having increasing difficulty
recruiting people, so the Guard may get smaller even as the demands on
it grow," he said.

According to a spokeswoman for the National Guard Bureau in
Washington, the Pentagon tries to keep at least 50 percent of each
state's Guard at home for use in emergencies. Lieutenant General H.
Steven Blum, the overall head of the Guard, said in a March letter
declining Schweitzer's request that in a crisis the state could borrow
troops and equipment from the Guards in other states.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in
Washington, said that while some states may be feeling the effects of
the Iraq deployment more than others, nationwide the Guard's policy
had proved more effective than he expected.

''The combination of the 50 percent rule and the cross-state access
arrangement should mean that unless you have an astronomically bad
catastrophe, you should be in pretty good shape," O'Hanlon said.

But from his corner office overlooking the Helena airport where much
of Montana's firefighting fleet spends the winter, Schweitzer says
that just counting the number of soldiers available overlooks the
importance of aircraft and other equipment, and that he remains
skeptical that arrangements with other states will prove workable.

''You bring someone here from Florida or Kentucky, a Guardsman,
wonderfully trained individuals, they don't live in this community.
They're not here," he said, explaining that he preferred to have
Montana Guardsmen responding to local emergencies. ''That's why we
have National Guards."

A total of 1,593 Montana troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan,
more than 40 percent of the state's Guard force.

Compounding the problem in Montana and elsewhere is that many of the
first responders and private contractors that states rely on during
emergencies are also members of the National Guard and many of them
are overseas, a ripple effect that O'Hanlon says is a problem
nationwide, especially in small communities.

''You have this crossover effect where first responders are in the
Guard, and they are being taken away from their first-responder role
because they're activated," he said.

Forest fires in the West, most of them sparked by lightning storms
moving across the conifer forests along the Continental Divide, are
unlike anything on the East Coast, where the forests are made up of
less flammable deciduous trees. In the Rockies, tens of thousands of
firefighters can be mobilized quickly to fight fires out of bases
scattered across the region.

Officials in Montana emphasize that the extensive network of
firefighters and equipment in the West can extinguish almost all of
the fires that start in the region before they threaten people or
property, but that in a worst-case outcome the Guard plays a crucial
role in helping contain big blazes. The Montana Guard was activated as
recently as 2003 and has been called up in two of the past five years.

In a particularly bad fire season such as the summer of 2000,
according to Ray Nelson of the Northern Rockies Fire Coordination
Center, fire crews from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and international
teams from as far away as Australia and New Zealand helped battle
blazes in the Bitter Root Valley in southwestern Montana.

The military role is not limited to the National Guard; in 2000, a
battalion of regular Army troops was activated to fight fires on
federal land, and the number of firefighters approached 30,000,
according to Bob Harrington, Montana's state forester.

Schweitzer's complaints about Montana's missing Guardsmen, Goheen
said, reflected the way the role of the Guard has fundamentally
changed in the past four years.

''Prior to September 11, for a couple of generations we didn't have a
significant number of personnel who went off to war," Goheen said.
''Today's National Guard is more similar to World War II and Korea,
where large numbers of the National Guard is being mobilized and

Whether Montana will need the Guard this summer remains to be seen,
said Wayne Williams, a smoke jumper based in Missoula. ''Never predict
fire season until Sept. 30." 

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