California Wildfires: State Military Reservists Answer the Call
JOINT FORCES TRAINING BASE LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. --
When the California National Guard was activated in early December to aid fire relief efforts in the southern part of the state, the California State Military Reserve’s Installation Support Command also answered the call.
Two dozen soldiers from the ISC here stood up on emergency state active duty to help the base as it transformed into a staging area for personnel and supplies heading into communities ravaged by fire.
The state’s military reserve is a trained, organized force that can augment the California National Guard during natural disasters and other emergencies.
“The mission of the ISC is to support the base,” said California State Military Reserve Col. Richard Lalor, ISC commander.
Twelve wildfires ignited throughout the region in a four-day span forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. The largest of the blazes, the Thomas Fire, started Dec. 4 and continues to burn in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The fire is over 280,000 acres and is the largest recorded wildfire in California’s modern history.
As residents in six counties fled their homes to seek shelter from the firestorm, the base became a launch pad for the California National Guard and agency partners including the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
With 24-hour operations underway and trucks of soldiers and supplies going in and out of the installation, the base needed to increase its manpower to support the response tempo and volume of activity.
ISC soldiers provided extra manning for the installation’s gates, conducted traffic control points, and secured and patrolled the Office of Emergency Services staging area for multiagency personnel and supplies, in concert with the base’s Training Support Detachment. The ISC also provided a night duty officer for the base and activated an operations officer to coordinate the unit’s activation and responsibilities.
The first soldiers were activated on less than a 12-hour notice, Lalor said.
“It was, ‘Drop what you’re doing. Tell your boss you’ve been activated for an emergency and be here,’” Lalor said. “And they were here.”
California State Military Reserve Spc. Juan Ossa was one of the first to be activated.
“When the last fires came through, we had our 'go bags' in the car and thought, ‘Well, maybe,’ but nothing ever happened,” Ossa said. “When this started happening and the calls started coming in we thought, ‘This is real.’”
Ossa, who serves in security forces, said he and his counterparts were prepared for the added responsibility a natural disaster would bring to the base.
‘We Train for This’
“We train for this,” he said. “We were all comfortable with it. We knew what we needed to do.”
For the past year, the ISC has worked to align itself with its National Guard counterparts for scenarios just like this, Lalor said. Earlier in the fall, their skills were validated during the base’s Joint Reception Staging Onward Integration exercise.
The exercise tested the base’s ability to receive, sustain, stage and push out thousands of first responders and supplies in response to a natural disaster. The exercise disaster was a tsunami triggered by an earthquake, but at a tactical level, staging for the actual wildfire response was no different, Ossa said.
“Everything we had to do today was stuff that we practiced a month ago with everybody here at the base,” Ossa said. “Because of that and because of how we fell in along with our base security counterparts it just fell into place.”
The wildfire response was Ossa’s first major disaster activation during his service as a state military reservist.
It was the second disaster activation for California State Military Reserve Staff Sgt. James Fitzgerald, who serves in the ISC as an electrician, but is trained and authorized to augment security forces as needed. He worked with Ossa on an overnight shift at base’s front gate.
“This is what we’re trained for. This is what we know and we’re glad to do it,” Fitzgerald said.
Traffic Control, Security Duties
During the fire response the soldiers maintained traffic control and security at a staging area on the base. As the staging area grew in size and moved, the soldiers did, too.
Their efforts made it easier for agency partners to focus on the mission.
“I’ve had security before, but I’ve never had security as good as this security,” said Mark Ackerman of the Office of Emergency Services, who led the agency’s staging area.
“They were always patrolling. These guys were documenting our activities and were involved in the process,” Ackerman said. “They’re protecting us, but they’re also protecting the assets -- without even being told.”
The assets, he said, included pallets of water, food, emergency supplies and equipment.
“I leave here at night, and I’m not worried about it,” Ackerman said. “Maybe a rabbit would get into our [meals ready to eat], but that’s about it.”
Lalor takes pride in seeing his soldiers answer the call.
“Whatever the mission was or the job was, they jumped right at it,” Lalor said. “It was a pleasure, watching them in action and seeing how they responded to the emergency. They were just absolutely outstanding.”
In the coming months, Lalor said he will present each of his activated soldiers with the California State Service Ribbon.
“It’s going to be an honor for me,” Lalor said. “It’s a big deal because that little ribbon says this man or woman stood up when the call came to serve their neighbors, to serve their community and to serve their state in its hour of need. That’s important.”