Utah Guard Soldiers Activated

to Support Neola Fire Effort

 

By Maj. Hank McIntire

Published July 19, 2007

 

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The Neola Fire blackened more than 43,000 acres in Duchesne and Uintah Counties and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in July 2007.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

The Neola Fire blackened more than 43,000 acres in Duchesne and

Uintah Counties and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in July 2007.

NEOLA, Utah — If the reader could have looked at a crowded, wide-angle ‘snapshot’ of the Utah National Guard on Sunday, July 1, in the upper right-hand corner of the picture they would have seen Alpha Company, 2-211th Aviation, along with members of the 141st and 142nd Military Intelligence Battalions serving in Iraq.

In the top left, the Afghan landscape would have been clearly visible with I Corps Artillery (Forward) fulfilling their mission.

Bottom right would have shown Airmen from the the 169th Intelligence Squadron, 109th Air Control Squadron, 299th Range Control Squadron and 151st Air Refueling Wing —all of the Utah Air National Guard—in various parts of the world.

Prominent in the bottom left would have been the 116th Convoy Security Company at Camp Shelby, Miss., and the 1-145th Field Artillery at Fort Bliss, Texas, both preparing for duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

One of twelve houses that were completely destroyed in the wake of the Neola Fire.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

One of twelve houses that were completely

destroyed in the wake of the Neola Fire.

And in the center of the picture—just barely coming into focus—would have been 100 members of the 115th Engineer Group. They had been activated that day by Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., to assist with the massive effort to fight a wildfire surrounding the small northeastern Utah town of Neola. The fire straddled the boundaries dividing Duchesne and Uintah Counties and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

Just days earlier the fire had taken the lives of three farmers caught by the blaze in their hayfields. Federal and state resources were called in when first responders from local jurisdictions were quickly overwhelmed by the speed and magnitude of the fire.

Included in those resources was the Utah National Guard, who was tasked to assist local law enforcement in the two counties and on the Reservation by maintaining a 24/7 presence at more than a dozen road-closure checkpoints in areas threatened by the fire.

Capt. Andrew Owens, commander of troops, briefs Gov. Jon Huntsman, right, and Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, second from right, on the mission.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Capt. Andrew Owens, commander of troops, briefs Gov. Jon Huntsman, right, and Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, second from right, on the mission.

Guard officials received notification of the governor’s call-up at 5:30 p.m., July 1. Just minutes later Soldiers were notified of the need and by 7:00 that evening began arriving in Vernal to report for duty.

“I got the call at 1800, and within an hour we were at the armory,” said Sgt. Christopher Oakes, a Roosevelt resident with Detachment 1, Bravo Company, 1457th Engineer Battalion.

“Our first platoon was pretty much ready to go that first night,” said Orem resident Capt. Andrew Owens, Headquarters Company, 1457th Engineers, who was commander of troops for the mission. “They had less than six hours of response time. With the Fourth of July weekend, normally you would think it would be hard to get Soldiers away from their families, but they really answered the call.”

Soldiers from the 115th Engineer set up their Tactical Operations Center at East Elementary in Roosevelt, Utah.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Soldiers from the 115th Engineer set up their Tactical

Operations Center at East Elementary in Roosevelt, Utah.

Incident commander Kim Martin, a forest engineer with the Uinta National Forest, was also pleased with the rapid response time of the Utah Guard.

“They responded very quickly,” said Martin. “I was quite impressed. It seemed like the order went out and they were here. That was outstanding.”

The Guard set up their Tactical Operations Center (TOC) at East Elementary in Roosevelt, just a few minutes away from the Emergency Operations Center in Neola. Soldiers quickly became a part of the landscape with their tents set up on the school grounds and traveling to and from checkpoints in their humvees and other military vehicles.

According to Oakes, the uniformed presence in the community was a comfort to local citizens, and serving close to home was particularly rewarding for Soldiers from the local area who knew many of the people who stopped at the checkpoints.

It’s good for us because a lot of the people coming in, I know half of them,” Oakes said. “It’s good to carry on a conversation and [for them to] see that we’re out in the community.”

Pfc. Justin Allred, left, and Sgt. Ryan Thomas, both of Bravo Company, 1457th Engineers, monitor their checkpoint in Uintah County.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Pfc. Justin Allred, left, and Sgt. Ryan Thomas, both of Bravo Company, 1457th Engineers, monitor their checkpoint in Uintah County.

“They’ve been happy with it and thanking us for doing what we do,” added Spc. Vince Billings, a Bravo Company Soldier from Vernal.

While manning his checkpoint, Billings ran into his old high school wrestling coach, as well as one of his former teachers. He also told of a Sandy, Utah, couple who owned a few acres in the area of his assigned checkpoint. The pair came up to check on their property and set up their camp trailer within feet of the Soldiers’ outpost and made sure they had enough to eat and drink.

“They even brought coffee up yesterday morning for the guys who were here when we came to relieve them,” said Billings.

Soldiers’ employers were also a critical behind-the-scenes part of the response to the crisis.

Capt. Andrew Owens, left, and Capt. Grace, 300 Military Intelligence Brigade, discuss the handover of the mission from the Engineers to the MI.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Capt. Andrew Owens, left, and Capt. Grace, 300 Military Intelligence Brigade, discuss the handover of the mission from the Engineers to the MI.

“I work at Wheeler Machinery in Vernal, and they have been very supportive,” said Pvt. Jeremy Smuin, of Bravo Company, 1457th, who has been in the Guard less than a year. “They didn’t have a problem with letting me off to serve.”

Back in the TOC, Owens and his staff were constantly busy adjusting work assignments, updating maps, interfacing with their civilian counterparts and keeping track of Soldiers out in the field.

“We keep in contact with the checkpoints and make sure our Soldiers are safe,” said Spc. Tiffany Marshall, of Grantsville, a 92A, or Automated Logistical Specialist.

At Neola, young Soldiers gained critical experience in their military occupational specialties (MOS), which will pay big dividends when they find themselves on the battlefield.

“It was important for me to lend my MOS skills to this mission, be accountable and take responsibility,” said Marshall.

Sgt. Frank Thacker, left, and Spc. Nathan Massey, both of Bravo Company, 1457th Engineers, find a creative way to cook lunch at their checkpoint.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Sgt. Frank Thacker, left, and Spc. Nathan Massey, both of Bravo Company, 1457th Engineers, find a creative way to cook lunch at their checkpoint.

"I learned a little bit of everything this week,” said Spc. Chalise Vandermyde, of Alpha Company—also a 92A. “We had to do a lot of leading and taking care of everyone in the TOC, running the radio, talking on the phone and making sure people did what they were supposed to.” 

And seasoned Soldiers complemented the energy and enthusiasm of newer unit members by folding in their skills honed at the war front with a dash of new equipment and technology.

“A few years ago we would have been hard-pressed to field anything without a couple of weeks of planning in advance, but today we’ve got satellite trailers and radios,” said Sgt. Thomas Chilcott, an Orem resident and communications specialist with the 115th Maintenance Company. Along with Spc. Josh Romig, Chilcott made sure that the military had the connectivity they needed to fulfill the mission.

The site where the Neola Fire reportedly started near the boundary shared by Duchesne and Uintah Counties and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

The site where the Neola Fire reportedly started near the boundary shared by Duchesne and Uintah Counties and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

“And [after my experience in combat], I’m definitely capable of functioning longer hours with less sleep,” added Chilcott. “There’s also the just-get-it-done factor. In the past I might have looked at it like, ‘This is the right way to do it; this is how we’re going to do it.’ Today, I’m more willing to just improvise and get things working until we can find a more appropriate, long-term solution.”

As the multiagency response unfolded, civilian and Guard leaders were pleased and impressed with the cooperation displayed by everyone involved.

This team, which includes 700 firefighters and 100 members of the Utah National Guard, has done an extraordinary job,” said Gov. Huntsman at a press conference in Neola. “The cooperation across agencies has been absolutely remarkable.”

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, highlighted the multiple roles that the Guard plays.

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, left, and Gov. Jon Huntsman, center, prepare to board a Utah National Guard helicopter to observe the fire from the air.

Photo by Maj. Hank McIntire

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, left, and Gov. Jon Huntsman, center, prepare to board a Utah National Guard helicopter to observe the fire from the air.

“Many of our Soldiers are from the Vernal unit here and are working to defend their own homes and their own citizens,” he said. “With a thousand Soldiers deployed to the warfight and a hundred here to help with this fire, that underscores the dual status of the Guard as Citizen-Soldiers. We’re team members. We’re here to help, and we’ll stay here till we get it done.”

Part of staying to ‘get it done’ meant a switch-out of troops after a week on the job. With the fire about 65 percent contained, Soldiers from the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade assumed the mission from the Engineers on July 9, which coincided with a reduction of troops from 100 to 50 and a drop in the number of checkpoints from 13 to 4.

The 300th remained for three days until the stand-down order came on July 11, and Soldiers packed up and went home, taking with them the thanks of grateful citizens, first responders and agency leaders.

 “The Guard definitely provided a contribution by helping us to secure [restricted] areas,” said Incident Commander Martin. “It freed up local law enforcement to do their thing. They are awesome.”