HELENA — About 40 members of the Montana National Guard have been hard at work at Fort Harrison preparing for the state’s next major fire. They were taking part in a “Red Card” training program, to get certified as wildland firefighters.
“We had quite a bit of classroom time to give us the foundation,” said Sgt. Ryan Wagnild. “Now we’re in the field getting hands-on familiarization, to drive what we learn in the classroom home.”
During the week-long program, the guardsmen went through exercises like the “pack test,” where they had to hike three miles in 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack. On Friday, they practiced creating a control line with hand tools, using a drip torch to set a backfire, and protecting themselves using a fire shelter.
The guardsmen went through the training in their typical camouflage uniforms. Instructors said they were expecting full sets of fire-resistant clothing for them, but that the items hadn’t arrived in time and they needed to continue the program.
The Red Card training is organized through the Guard, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Montana Disaster and Emergency Services. This group was the first of two that will go through the program. Almost 100 guardsmen will take part – all of them volunteers.
“This is one of those chances, and the reasons why you serve in the National Guard, so you can help the local populace with any event that comes up,” Wagnild said.
Once the guardsmen finish the training, they will receive a Red Card certification. Master Sgt. Bradley Hutchison, the non-commissioned officer in charge, said that will allow them to fight fires not only in Montana but anywhere in the country where their assistance is needed.
As the state prepares for fire season, the Guard wants to be ready to go into action as soon as they are called. If Gov. Steve Bullock declares a fire emergency, Guard members can be activated. They can serve in a variety of roles, from working on the fire lines as hand crews to assisting law enforcement with traffic control.
Hutchison said training these guardsmen before an emergency has been declared will save several crucial days once the call does come. “Time is of the essence; we realize that,” he said. “As soon as we can get them out to an incident commander, we want to be able to do that.”
If additional support is needed, leaders say they can put other guardsmen through an abbreviated training program. Last year, the Montana National Guard committed almost 1,000 of its members to assist with the state’s record-breaking fire season.
“The Montana National Guard and its citizen soldiers are here to support the state of Montana as soon as the call is made,” said Hutchison.