CHEYENNE – It’s been six years since a fire jumped the fence at Camp Guernsey, and since then many efforts have been made to ensure it doesn’t happen again at a place inherently involved in the risky business of enabling military members to practice blowing things up.
Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, Wyoming adjutant general, concerned with being a good neighbor and a good steward of the property, used to train warfighters for the last 80 years, set forth a stern and difficult challenge to the training center’s staff—do not let a fire leave the boundaries of the training area’s almost 80,000 acres.
“We had significant fires at Camp Guernsey in both 2006 and 2012, both of which cost millions of dollars to put out and both of which burned off of our training area, causing extensive damage to our neighbors,” Reiner explained. “Having these types of events is not an effective way of being a good neighbor and they are certainly not a good way to take care of our training area.
“We owe our neighbors in the area extreme vigilance regarding fires and a highly trained and responsive wild land firefighting capability. Our goal is to prevent fires from occurring, but if they do, our task is to quickly and efficiently put them out. In that same discussion however, we also have to realize that we are a joint premier training center, one that offers a phenomenal training venue to our nation’s warriors, the men and women who have volunteered to serve this state and nation, men and women who need to be highly proficient in their warfighting tasks before they deploy. We also provide the training venue to the men and women who secure portions of our nuclear arsenal and that is a key and critical task. To that end, the guidance to the command structure is to balance the risk of fire and the risk to mission relative to training.”
Col. Joe Huss, commander of the Camp Guernsey JTC, and the man responsible for meeting the challenge set forth by Reiner knows it’s a tall order but one he and his staff fully embrace.
“It’s crazy. It really is crazy,” said Huss of the risk and responsibility involved in running a facility where people shoot incendiary devices in conditions where little more than a spark could ignite all matter of trees, brush and grass primed by hot, dry weather. Nonetheless, he has accepted the challenge and is determined to prevent another incident like the one in 2012 that cost the state $6.5 million, and tarnished the training facility’s reputation in the community.
Huss said that focus is turned into action on the ground and in the air by Wyoming Military Department employees and service members of all levels and disciplines that have implemented steps to mitigate risk.
While no one is doing a victory lap, there seems to be a level of confidence in the measures taken so far this year and in the last several years Huss has been at Guernsey. Huss said he relies heavily on the “expertise of the fire department. We get them the resources they need, and we’ve really established a battle rhythm. Prescribed fires are up and real fires are down. That’s a good thing.”
The camp’s fire department leadership is optimistic, but not ready to rest on its laurels, according to Assistant Fire Chief Chad Brush. He’s encouraged by having additional resources, a motivated staff and an energized mitigation plan, creating a synergy in the department.
“We seem to be managing our resources better, and making excellent use of our time, reducing fuel for fire,” Brush said. “Command is really supportive. They encourage us to conduct controlled burns and we’ve really got a handle on the perimeter. The boundaries are really tightened up. You can’t help where a lightning strike hits, but what we can control is really helpful.”
Among those resources, in addition to new firefighting vehicles, equipment and training, is keeping the firehouse staffed. CGFD Station Captain Mark Streets said it’s been a challenge to retain experienced firefighters at the rural location.
To be a qualified firefighter at the camp, one must possess three certificates pertaining to wildland fire, structure fire and military airfield firefighting. Historically, there has been a pattern of losing firefighters, to higher paying departments, once they are trained and certified here. He said it’s gotten better recently.
“We have an experienced staff now and we have the number of personnel we’re supposed to have,” Streets said. “I’m actually feeling confident about this season. It’s gonna be a good one.”
CGJTC operations officer Maj. Michael Fields doesn’t want to get too optimistic, as he believes fire crews could have their hands full this year with record-setting numbers of troops firing artillery, rockets and airborne projectiles at Camp Guernsey’s vast impact area.
“Last year, we had 26 fires,” Fields said. “Since I have been around (2014), we have had a couple 100-acre fires. We always have fire when we shoot rockets. We will have more fires this year especially with artillery shoots in May, June, July and more and more aerial gunnery coming to Camp Guernsey.”
Conversely, Huss said one of the camp’s recent innovations, establishing “operations areas,” may reduce some of those problem areas. These are groomed, and blackened (pre-burned) areas where units operating weapons systems that are traditionally prone to starting back blast fires must fire from. Access to the areas has been improved and fire trucks and crews are always staged in the area during those live-fire events.
Additionally, the fulltime firefighting staff is augmented by traditional guardsmen who work one weekend a month and two weeks a year at the camp as firefighters, and more than 40 full time employees who are “Red Card” trained to help out in the event of a wildfire. The camp also has a cooperative agreement with neighboring fire departments that allows the sharing of resources when needed.
A good example of partnering resources was a recent exercise involving the Army National Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, pilots and crews from G Company 2nd Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment. The two-day exercise allowed the fire department to burn about 120 acres of fuel and the helicopter crews to practice dropping water from the air, something they may be called in to do, should a fire get away from ground crews.
“That went extremely well,” Streets said of the exercise that saw the choppers drop more than 60 600-gallon buckets of water, dipped from the Guernsey Reservoir. “I think the helos met their goals and we got a lot of good fire department experience too.”
Brush added, “They got to see some smoke patterns and fire behavior—a lot of real-world stuff.”
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Reisig, flight operations officer, agreed with the firefighters’ assessment.
“Actually having fire on the ground is big for adding layers of training for our pilots and the crews in the back,” Reisig said. “Some of our crews have never done this operation, so for our pilots to be able to see what altitude and air speed they really need and to practice communication from the front to the back and get immediate feedback on the height and water dispersion rates is very important.”
Weather at the camp also plays a big part in what training can occur during fire season. If the temperature is over 80, the wind exceeds 20 miles per hour and the humidity is less than 20 percent, then firing projectiles is not allowed.
Huss said 80-20-20 is strictly enforced and a “cause for consternation,” with some units that have a tight schedule.
“They might have to shift their training from mid-day to the early morning or the evening,” Huss explained. “They aren’t always happy about it, but we stick to it.”
As with all bureaucracies, there are many agencies and departments involved in Camp Guernsey operations, and personnel from those entities meet regularly to update fire mitigation priorities and discuss how to improve efforts within the boundaries of budget, environmental and cultural concerns, dirt-moving resources and a host of other factors that can heat up a conference room like a well-shot mortar.
The group, started by Huss three years ago, has mapped out priority areas, and while many on the ground at Guernsey would like to see access and fire breaks improved and created by clearing specified areas of trees, brush and other fuel; depending on your viewpoint, environmental and other regulations can get in the way of progress.
In addition to distinctions between fire lines and roads, there are battles over funding and the designations for what departments can and should do the work should it ever get approved. As well, the training area is splattered with cultural sites, meant to be untouched and many old trees that are designated to be protected.
At a recent meeting by the group, Huss said at the start, “I know it takes time, but this communication is special, facing each other at the table. There’s a lot of expertise here, so let’s share it and think about all these pieces. Find that balance. There’s not just one answer. Find that place in the middle.”
That afternoon, several members travelled to the priority zones to see for themselves, some of the shared concerns.
Reiner and his staff are grateful for legislation at the state and national level to make improvements at Guernsey and for the reassurance and counsel from others in his shoes that have had similar experiences. While there is still work to be done, he wants the community to know the Wyoming Military Department is doing everything it can to be a good neighbor and is grateful to the community for its support.
“Once again, our apologies for the past fires and thank you for allowing us to implement better mitigation practices and to ensure better response procedures are now in place,” Reiner said to the residents of Platte County, “Please know that we take all of our responsibilities, to include preventing and/or responding to fire very seriously. Thank you also for your support over the years in terms of ensuring that this state’s and nation’s military has a quality place to train. Your partnership and support is critical to our success.”
It’s not a perfect science, but if a fire gets out of hand at Guernsey, it certainly won’t be for lack of effort, concern or wishful thinking. Speaking of which, let’s hope it’s a non-issue this year and for many to come.
Photo: Staff Sgt. Morgan Graham, crew chief, and UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Justin Study, from the Wyoming Army National Guard’s G Company 2nd Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, prepare the water bucket apparatus at Guernsey Airfield April 18, while a second Black Hawk lands. The buckets are attached near the dip site prior to aerial firefighting operations. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire