3rd Battalion preps for firefighting duties

July 05, 2013 10:51 am
VALE — Eastern Oregon’s National Guard combat unit is preparing for a major test of its newest weapons system this month, but the top leaders of the unit are already gearing up for another summer tradition across the West — fighting forest fires.

The 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment is scheduled to hit the high desert south of Boise to field test the new M1-A2 SEP Abrams main battle tank. The Eastern Oregon unit is the only Guard combat unit in the nation to receive the U.S. Army’s newest high-tech armor battlewagon. 

For the past year — since the 3rd Battalion returned from its last combat tour in Iraq — members of the unit traveled to the Umatilla Army Depot to conduct an intensive training regime on the new tank.

During several weeks in July, the 3rd Battalion will essentially be tested — what the military terms as “validated” — at the vast southern Idaho Orchard Training Area, on the new tank. 

“Annual training is where we will validate that the equipment works to its capabilities and that the training we received this past year validates a crew can manipulate those capabilities and pass the crew gunnery tables,” said Maj. Joseph Lundell, the 3rd Battalion’s full-time operations officer.

Yet while the focus will be on tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, the battalion is also preparing for a local or state crisis, including fighting forest fires, Lundell said.

“We are always looking ahead to fire season. As we start packing and preparing for annual training, we start looking for volunteers that can be called upon first if needed. At the same time, we are inventorying our equipment that will be needed to fight wildfires if called upon,” Lundell said.

Forecasting a fire season depends upon weather, according to Jason Simmons, an assault fire management officer for the Vale office of the United States Bureau of Land Management.

And a little luck.

“It depends a lot on our (lightning) starts. We are largely lightning-based. Fire starts depend on lightning and no one can predict that,” he said.

Simmons said the upcoming fire season may be vibrant.

“It could be an above normal fire season,” he said. “The severity of the fire season depends where you are in the country.”

Simmons said federal firefighting resources can be stretched when a number of medium-sized fires erupt in different parts of the country at the same time. 

Simmons said the National Guard is typically called out to help battle blazes when all other existing federal and state firefighting resources are tasked to other fires. 

Yet, he emphasized, when projecting a future fire campaign, everything comes down to what Mother Nature decides.

“We are preparing like we do every fire season,” he said.

Maj. John Qualls, the second-in-command for the 3rd Battalion, and a Heppner resident, said no matter how the fire season plays out, the Eastern Oregon citizen-solider unit will be organized to aid state, federal or local agencies.

“We stand ready to perform our state mission by providing valuable personnel and equipment when called upon. We are structured to perform domestic missions, whether it is fighting fires or aiding in any other disaster in our state or nation,” he said.

The 3rd Battalion is structured as a “combined-arms” unit, which means it boasts two companies of tanks and two companies of Bradley fighting vehicles. A support company in Baker City rounds out the Eastern Oregon outfit.

The Baker City support unit, known as Fox Company, is structured in a way to allow it to switch from combat training exercises to fire-fighting within hours.

“The thing about this company is, overall, our ability to help the community is greater than just providing manpower. We’ve got generators, mobile machine shops for use in supporting firefighting efforts. We have cooks and we can feed a large number of people if need be,” Capt. Klay Pierson, the commander of the Baker City Guard unit, said.

The 3rd Battalion consists of part-time Guard units from Hood River, The Dalles, Hermiston, Pendleton, La Grande, Baker City, Ontario and Woodburn.