Fort Johnson joins forces with area, national teams to fight wildfires

Published 10:03 am Thursday, October 26, 2023

By Chuck Cannon / Special to the News Leader

When wildfires broke out across Southwestern Louisiana, it was only natural for firefighters from Fort Johnson’s Directorate of Emergency Services and foresters with the installations Environmental and Natural Resource Management Division to lend their skills and expertise to help battle the blazes.

DES Fire Chief David Kass said it is important Fort Johnson supports its mutual aid partners in protecting life and property.

“We share common interests in protecting military personnel, families, friends, and coworkers due to the close ties between Fort Johnson and local communities,” Kass said. “With the recent urban interface wildfires threatening Fort Johnson and surrounding areas, we were able to assist as a response multiplier through the highly effective use of our crash rescue firefighting vehicles.”

The vehicles allowed firefighters to project large volumes of water while pumping and rolling to protect multiple homes that are threatened by fire.

Severe drought conditions and scorching triple-digit temperatures persisted throughout July and August and led to the fires raging out of control and inching closer to Fort Johnson.

Although the crash rescue firefighting vehicles allowed firefighters to bring greater quantities of water to the fight, more water was needed.

The Louisiana National Guard’s 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion and Fort Johnson’s 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment, responded to the call by scooping water from Toledo Bend Reservoir and Alligator Lake on Fort Johnson in Bambi Buckets and dropping it where fires threatened structures.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Minton, a standardization pilot with 1/5 Avn, said when the call came there was no program in the unit’s standard operation procedure for conducting Bambi operations or how to use Bambi Buckets.

“We were able to put together a training program within a week,” Minton said. “We borrowed three buckets from the Louisiana National Guard and one from the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. I trained instructor pilots and Sgt. Tyler Eschete trained crew chiefs.”

Minton said the crews were trained on inspection and operation of the Bambi Buckets, and different fill, dip and drop techniques depending on the type of fire and location.

“Our guys stepped up and devoted a lot of time and effort to support the operations on Fort Johnson and the surrounding area with Bambi operations,” Minton said. “They are now prepared to quickly respond in the future if the need arises.”

While Fort Johnson’s aviators brought water to the firefighting efforts, soldiers with the 46th Engineer Battalion brought their heavy equipment.

The battalion was supporting Joint Readiness Training Center rotation 23-09 when it received a change of mission to support foresters in expanding 31 kilometers of firebreaks in the Peason Ridge training area. The 573rd Clearance Company was tasked to patrol the Kurthwood and Cold Springs training area for potential flare-ups and the 687th Engineer Construction Company were tasked with firebreak improvement.

“The firebreaks served as a crucial barrier to slow the spread of wildfires, protecting military assets, training areas and civilian properties,” Capt. Jack Scogin, 46th Eng Bn said. “This collaborative effort between 46th Engineer Battalion and Directorate of Public Works foresters underscores our commitment to the safety and well- being of both our military personnel and the surrounding civilian community.”

In addition to Fort Johnson’s 46th Eng Bn and 1/5th Avn assets, the LANG’s 528th Eng Bn, and air assets from the Oklahoma National Guard joined the fight.

The entire team created more than 150 miles of firebreaks in Sabine, Vernon and Beauregard parishes, and dropped more than 800,000 gallons of water on the fires.

As the fires drew nearer to Fort Johnson, Bruce Martine, Fort Johnson DES Forestry Branch chief, put the word out to other installations that assistance was needed in battling the blazes that were popping up across Southwestern Louisiana. Foresters from Fort Liberty, North Carolina, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Stewart, Georgia, answered the call.

The volunteers, who traveled up to 16 hours, bringing bulldozers with them, included the following: Brandon Morgan, James Chaffin and Brian Ball from Fort Liberty; Tyler Mikell and Evan Strickland from Fort Stewart; and Luke Sopralski, Sean Connelly and Mike Mason from Fort Campbell.

“We were told the guys at Fort Johnson had been running about six weeks straight, working 12-14 hour days,” Sopralski said. “We’ve had experience fighting forest fires in this type of environment, so we volunteered.”

The volunteers stayed at Fort Johnson for a week. Among issues firefighters faced were damaged trees from Hurricanes Laura and Delta, and dry pine needles from the area’s multiple pine forests and tree farms that literally added fuel to the fires.

“Pine straw reburns and downed trees from hurricanes make good burning material,” Mikell said. “You might think you have the fire out in a particular area, then dry pine needles from trees damaged by the fire fall to the ground and the fire picks up again.”

The areas most of the fires occurred were rural and water supply was limited — either no hydrants or a limited amount — which requires coordinating a water shuttle operation. All while the fire is changing direction, speed and intensifying.

“The incident commander can’t fight the fire head on as he can in a structure fire because it’s usually a larger fire and moving fast,” Lewis said. “He has to prioritize structures that can be reasonably saved, set up on the structure and apply large amounts of water as the fire passes through the area, keeping his firefighters safe.”

Lewis said the best one can hope for is to contain the fire and allow it to consume the natural fuel load, keeping people and structures safe.

In recognition for their efforts in protecting life and property in the unprecedented wildfires that raged through southwestern Louisiana, Brig. Gen. David W. Gardner presented Commanding General Excellence Awards to 56 firefighters, soldiers and aviators.

In addition, certificates of appreciation were given to the eight volunteers from different installations who helped Fort Johnson fight to prevent wildfires.