KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — More than 40 Oregon Air National Guard Airmen from the 173rd Fighter Wing have volunteered to serve on a reserve wildfire response team over the summer of 2020. These Airmen make up a part of response program “OPLAN Smokey”. Under this program, the state of Oregon is able to call upon the citizen Guardsmen to serve their state and control the destructive effects of local wildfires.
Many Airmen volunteer every year, setting aside civilian careers to deploy with their unit to remote Oregonian hillsides, said Lt. Col. Michael Balzotti, 173rd FW Wing Plans officer.
During a state of emergency, OPLAN Smokey volunteers are tasked with supporting regular wildland fire crews by “mopping up” contained fires, freeing crew resources to deal with other fires.
“Our primary function is to allow the civilian crews the freedom to move on to the next fire,” said Balzotti.
Master Sgt. Johnathan Anderson, 173rd FW Emergency Operations manager, said that it can be easy to forget that the Air National Guard has a responsibility to fulfill its state mission. “We’re in the National Guard: we have the state mission, and the federal mission,” he said. “Our state mission is to support the Governor of the state of Oregon. If we didn’t have the state mission, we’d just be active duty. Our state mission could be anything, like a flood situation downtown.”
Since 2015 to 2020, a total of 1,767 Oregon Guardsmen will have been trained to assist the state with wildland firefighting. Many have been activated during this time period following Governor Kate Brown’s emergency declaration orders to include the Canyon Creek Complex in the Malheur National Forest in 2015, the Chetco Bar Fire in 2017 in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and the Garner Complex Fire near Grants Pass in 2018.
Oregon is not alone in tapping into National Guard support. California, Nevada, and Washington have also mobilized citizen troops to fight the blazes as needed
On July 12, Kingsley volunteer crews went to a training facility near Salem to prepare for the coming fire season. Airmen received classroom instruction, outdoor practical demonstrations, and finished with a live skills demonstration by extinguishing a real fire.
Balzotti said that the Kingsley volunteers exhibited impressive performance during their training.
“The folks from the 173rd Fighter Wing that volunteered to fight the wildfires have been on point,” Balzotti said. “They have been eager to do their jobs, and they did it well. Even the people running the training, they were not expecting our Airmen to perform that well.”