The United States military has been an important partner in wildfire suppression since the 1880s when Army soldiers served as firefighters in Yellowstone National Park. During periods of high wildfire activity, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal and state agencies can call on the military to provide many types of support, including airplanes to provide incident awareness and assessment and serve as airtankers to drop fire retardant; helicopters to drop water and transport injured firefighters, and; soldiers to serve as firefighters.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies, can request assistance from the U.S. military with wildfire suppression through an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense. Governors can activate National Guard units in their states to assist with wildfire suppression.
The most common type of military assistance that NIFC requests is for C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) to serve as airtankers. This assistance has been requested almost every year since the program began in the early 1970s.
On a less frequent basis, NIFC also requests military personnel to serve as firefighters to assist with wildfire suppression efforts. When this occurs, the soldiers receive one day of classroom training and one to two days of field training. During classroom training, soldiers learn about a variety of topics related to wildfire suppression including fire terminology, fire behavior, and fireline safety. During field training, soldiers receive instruction in fire suppression methods and procedures, including Watch Out Situations and Standard Firefighting Orders; personal Protective Equipment; and use, transportation, and maintenance of wildfire suppression tools.
In 2018, the NIFC requested active duty military personnel to serve as firefighters to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in the West. The DoD provided 200 soldiers from the 14th Brigade Engineer Batallion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma, Washington to assist. You can learn more about military assistance for wildland fire suppression efforts on the National Interagency Fire Center website.