- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) — The Northwest faces what could be one of its worst wildfire seasons in years, but the military presence in Iraq means that forestry officials might not be able to call on their states’ National Guard units as much as they’d like.

Wildland fires burned more than 155,000 acres in 2004 across Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and this year, a preliminary outlook shows above-normal fire potential in the region because of a run of unusually dry weather.

“The Pacific Northwest, including northern Idaho and western Montana, has pretty serious water and fuel issues, so the folks in those states are being wise to look at preplanning,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer already has asked the Pentagon to free up some of his state’s 1,500 National Guard troops still on active duty because of the war. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he couldn’t do that, but he promised help from other states if Mr. Schweitzer asks for it.

U.S. operations in Iraq have stripped Montana of its 12 UH-60 Black Hawks, which played critical roles in 2003, when wildfires in Montana burned more than 736,800 acres.

The Black Hawks in the past were fitted with 600-gallon buckets to drop water on fires, said Maj. Scott Smith, a Guard spokesman. An option this year could be to use the Guard’s four CH-47 Chinook helicopters, capable of carrying 2,000-gallon buckets — but first, flight engineers will have to be trained to serve on each four-person crew.

Oregon Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski has asked for an assessment of the National Guard resources that will be available during the 2005 fire season.

The bulk of Oregon’s 8,000-plus National Guard troops have returned from overseas deployments. Its five Chinook helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan, but 12 Black Hawk helicopters could be readily available, said Capt. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

Most of Washington’s 8,200 National Guardsmen will be available. However, the 81st Armor Brigade has been trickling back from Iraq, and the state’s adjutant general has asked that it be the last deployed to fight fires.

“Our last resort would be to call upon the services of someone who recently returned from Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Clayton, a National Guard spokesman at Camp Murray.

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