Great Falls airmen headed to Montana fire lines
Sixty-six airmen of the 120th Airlift Wing were activated this week for wildfire operations.
They headed to Fort Harrison in Helena for training and joined with about 27 Army National Guard members to create Joint Task Force Falcon. On Monday, they will head to wildfires across the state. They’ll operate as Type II hand crews on fire lines, according to Guard officials.
This fresh wave will join other Guardsmen already working on wildfire operations for a total of 562 deployed across the state. It’s the first activation for the Montana Air National Guard this fire season. An activation earlier this summer was canceled due to changing fire conditions and needs, according to the Guard.
The 120th group includes two firefighters from Great Falls Fire Rescue and several from the Montana Air National Guard in Great Falls.
The Guardsmen were split into four teams with each being led by a U.S. Forest Service firefighter.
Two of the teams are scheduled to join operations at the Lolo Peak Fire. According to InciWeb, the fire is 52 percent contained and is currently more than 53,000 acres. As of Saturday afternoon, officials were still determining where to send the other two teams.
Training at Fort Harrison included classroom work and on Saturday there were four stations outside with hands-on training in water hoses, hand tools, fire shelters and radio communications.
Crew bosses running the stations are the same that will be leading the Guardsmen. Lt. Col. Joe Ferda, the officer in charge of the group, said the four teams were created at random for the most part, but some members were assigned to teams based on skills and team leader needs.
Ferda is from Great Falls, but not a member of the 120th. He’s assigned to the air staff at the Joint Force Headquarters at Fort Harrison. He’s also a counselor at East Middle School in Great Falls.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group sets standards as to how much fire line a type of hand crew should construct in an hour. Lengths are noted by numbers of chains and a chain equals 66 feet, according to the U.S. Forest Service. A Type 1 crew is expected to complete 30 chains, or 1980 feet, of line in short grass per hour. A Type 2 crew should complete 18 chains, or 1188 feet, in an hour. In brush, a Type 1 crew should complete 6 chains in an hour and a Type 2 should complete 4 chains. Fire lines must be taken down to mineral soil with no combustibles inside it, according to the Forest Service.
Though a few professional firefighters are among the group of activated troops, most come from different career fields and have no firefighting experience.
Staff Sgt. Jen Kozuch of the Army National Guard is a medic and a registered nurse at St. James Healthcare in Butte.
Firefighting is a “new experience,” she said. They’re learning safety and firefighting tactics and the training could be beneficial in their current jobs or for future deployments, Kozuch said.
She thanked the firefighters who had been fighting fires all summer and “putting in the hard work.”
Ferda said many of the members in this group had deployed previously in support of overseas missions, but it was a “pretty rare opportunity to be put on a state mission.”
It’s nice, he said, to serve their home state.
On Friday, the Guardsmen were outfitted with proper clothing and gear. The supply shop on Fort Harrison worked with the U.S. Forest Service, Ferda said, to ensure they had the appropriate equipment for the fire line.
Their military background helps the troops move through firefighting training quickly, Ferda said, since they understand chain of command, leadership and have a mission to accomplish.
The four teams are a mixture of Army and Air Guard members, and the joint operation is also beneficial to the troops who would often work in a joint environment for overseas deployments.
“The teams are coming together really well,” Ferda said.
Ferda and Kozuch said their employers were great to work with in terms of coordinating their absences from their civilian jobs. State law protects Guard members who are activated from losing their jobs, but it can sometimes cause tension with employers.
Guardsmen with Joint Task Force Falcon will be on the fire lines for 15 days starting Monday and are scheduled to return to Fort Harrison on Sept. 29.
Kozuch has been in the Guard for 11 years and Ferda for 26. He’s worked in logistics, readiness, force support, services and is currently with the inspector general’s office for the Montana Air National Guard in Helena.
Many of the activated troops have deployed previously, but for Spc. Fernando Mercado of the 260th Engineer Support Company in Miles City it’s the first activation.
He’s been in the Guard almost give years and is a wheeled vehicle mechanic. In his civilian life he works for a road painting equipment company in Billings and is a traditional Guardsman.
He said it was a bit nerve-wracking to know they’d be headed to the fire lines, but that the training was preparing them well.
“We’ll get the hang of it, ” Mercado said. “It’s making me feel like I want to be a firefighter in civilian life.”
As a reminder, Stage I fire restrictions are still in place in Cascade County and much of Montana.
That means no open burning, no campfires and no smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.