by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The summer of 2014 will forever be known as the summer of fire to the brave men and women who answered the call of duty to get the largest wildfires in Washington state's history under control. The weather did not cooperate, temperatures continued to rise, and the Governor had to finally declare a state of emergency and call in members of the Washington National Guard to help.
Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state's Military Department, said the National Guard had already been offering aerial support, but 100 National Guard troops were now being used on the ground for firefighting, and additional troops were receiving firefighting training for potential future use.
Sergeant Pablo Monroy was one of those soldiers. Sgt. Monroy told Seattle Gay News that A-Troop 303rd were ordered to fight the fires after the state of emergency was declared. 'Since then we've been assisting in the efforts to fight the fires across the state. My unit has been assigned to fight the Chiwaukum Complex fire which consists of the Chiwaukum creek fire, the Duncan fire, and the Kelly mountain fire.'
Monroy, who is openly Gay, said that when they got the call for assistance, 'we were then completing Gunnery for our Bradley's at Yakima Training Center as part of our Annual Training.'
The guard assisted in the Mills Canyon fire, which is the largest in recorded state history.
'That one was 40% contained at the time we arrived, so we were sent to Chiwaukum Creek which at the time was 2% contained,' he said. 'From where we were at Yakima Training Center at the time we saw smoke during the day.'
Resources were spread thin due to the amount of fires in the Northwest; some fires were left burning due to resources being needed elsewhere, he told SGN. 'Entire sides of mountains are completely charred.'
Although he was not complaining (on the contrary, Sgt. Monroy expressed great pride in the job they were asked to do), he reminded us that members of the Washington National Guard all have 'separate jobs and lives outside of uniform.'
'We were only supposed to be gone for a couple weeks, but plans have abruptly changed,' he said. 'Some of my guys have better paying jobs outside of this, classes which had to be cancelled, even a couple with babies due soon. I myself own a business and have a full time job outside of the Army. It's sacrifices we make to serve the people of our State and our Country.'
'We want to thank our families and friends who support us and our employers who understand our duties,' said Monroy. 'It was amazing to roll our convoy through Wenatchee and have the local police escort us through town and cars stopping, waving and cheering.'
In Leavenworth, Monroy said they had encountered 'locals coming out of their shops to wave and say thank you. It was an amazing feeling.'
According to Monroy, the 303rd received training last year to fight wild fires as part of their job to assist in natural disasters.
The fires, which began in early July and haven't burned out since, the Carlton Complex of fires, have burned over 400 square miles in the north-central part of the state.
Firefighters and local authorities weren't even happy to see cooler temperatures and higher humidity because even though wetter weather has moved in, lightning strikes could have ignited more fires.
Rain also brought worries about the potential for flash flooding because so much ground vegetation had burned away.
'When talking about wild fires, we try to box the fire, to trap it into place - which is containment,' he said. 'Then we go in 100 feet to ensure there are no hot spots, which could lead to the fire spreading - which is called control. After that, we wait for it to burn itself out - then we can call the fire out. What we are doing is creating that box - which we call fire lines, and doing what we call 'mop up' by going in 100 feet and putting out all the hot spots and small fires to control it.'
'It's tough work,' said the sergeant, adding, 'I wake up at 5 a.m. to get in line to eat by 5:30 and be at a meeting at 6 a.m. to hear the latest updates and our mission. By 7 a.m. we're loaded up and sent to the fire line. We work and sharpen our tools; then are usually back at camp by 8:15 p.m.'
Once back at camp, Monroy says they wait in line for dinner, then in line for showers.
Good news came to the men and women of the 303rd - they were able to return home to their families after an aggressive effort began to win them back.
At more than 250,000 acres, the Carlton Complex is larger than the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which consumed 238,920 acres in southwestern Washington and was the state's largest recorded forest fire, according to HistoryLink.org, an online resource of Washington state history.
The fire is being blamed for one death.
The number of homes destroyed in the Carlton Complex fire reached a whopping over 150. Two structures, an outbuilding and a seasonal cabin, were confirmed destroyed in the Chiwaukum Creek Fire near Leavenworth.
More than 2,100 firefighters and support crew have been involved with fighting the fire.
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