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La Grande Observer Daily paper 08/25/14

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National Guard preps for battling wildfires... (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
National Guard preps for battling wildfires... (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

LA GRANDE — Dressed in black boots and camouflage, the troops arrived Thursday in vans and buses and cars, finding their ways into the gym area of the National Guard armory in La Grande.

Within minutes, cots were being set up in rows along with walls. Gear was piling up in small mountains, and while the atmosphere seemed relaxed, conversations ranged from talk of families to frustration at finding the press covering the opening of the National Guard's firefighting training camp.

Through Sunday, intensive training continues for 125 Eastern Oregon National Guardsmen, most from Hermiston and Pendleton, the rest from La Grande and other regional towns.

After three 10-hour training days, the Guardsmen will be assigned where needed in Eastern and Central Oregon to help fight fires.

"We have a responsibility to to this portion of the state," 1st Lt. Brian Dean said. The Guardsmen called up were notified that they'd be serving a minimum of 14 days and possibly longer. If needed, other Guard units will be activated to fight fires as the fire season progresses into October.

While fighting fires isn't part of basic military training, Dean said in La Grande Thursday that "it's a contingency we plan against," since many of the basic skills taught in the military — self-protection, rough living, janitorial tasks — are what are needed on fire lines.

Among this first training group in La Grande is Bravo 116th Cav and Detachment 1 HHC 3-116 Cav, and pieces of other units. Those Guardsmen called up generally are parts of tank-operation military units, and support staff. Among the 125 at fire school this weekend, Dean said about 100 will find themselves on fire lines, while about 25 will be assigned to transportation, clerical and leadership duties.

All the Guard on firefighting duty will work under the military command system, which is working within the structure of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

For Dean, the duty involves operating the emergency operating center out of an armory cubicle, being sure the soldiers' uniforms, boots, canteens and normal gear is in good order and coordinating a million details.

All specific firefighting gear is supplied by the state forestry.

"We have a lot to do in a short amount of time," Dean said as the citizen-soldiers — about to become firefighters — arrived Thursday. "Thirty hours is not a lot of time."

As Dean watched troops set up beds and grab coffee, he noted that there were a lot of employers around Oregon to thank for letting employees watch away on such short notice.

He had one more wish.

"We're hoping for cooler weather, and rain."

Reach T.L. Petersen at tpetersen


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