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Marines, mutual aid, and miracles — a formula to crush wild fires

Camp Pendleton, Calif. May 16, 2014. Base evacuations. U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Derrick K. Irions
Camp Pendleton, Calif. May 16, 2014. Base evacuations. U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Derrick K. Irions

By Jeanne McKinney

When fires broke out May 14, Camp Pendleton fire crews were mobilized on base at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) within 15 minutes after the initial request for support.

Second Lieutenant Matthew Gregory said that inside the EOC several agencies are operating at once and report to a Watch Officer, with ultimate authority. “He gave direction and then everyone knew what part they would play. It was controlled chaos making sure our response was appropriate and handled thoroughly.”

By May 17, states Gregory, “3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) had provided 80 aircraft to assist in firefighting efforts and flown more than 280 hours, delivering more than 540,000 gallons of water throughout San Diego County.” Twenty-nine Marine aircraft provided 722 drops during off-base fire ops.

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It was an endurance test for the pilots and air crews, according to Gregory. “If they weren’t in the air, they were back on the ground prepping their equipment, making sure everything was good, so they could go right back up.”

“Several years ago,” he said, “there was a memorandum of understanding drawn between Camp Pendleton, I MEF command, CALFIRE and our local city and county fire departments. When there are fires off base we can provide air assets to them so they can fight the fires more effectively. With all the towns and houses burning out there, we wanted to make sure that residents in the local area were taken care of first.”

“If Camp Pendleton and the wild land are on fire it is a concern, but it’s more of a concern to us that people have their homes and communities to go back to.”

When the Tomahawk fire broke out near Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook in the northeast section of the base, Camp Pendleton Fire Departments and U.S Forestry combined into one central command unit.  While they triaged response, evacuations and security, two more black plumes shot up from the central Las Pulgas and northwest San Mateo fires.

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The San Mateo blaze threatened area 62 and the School of Infantry that was housing evacuees from the multiplying crisis. It was also the same day (May 16) as the Recon Challenge, an endurance event open to the public.

“We did move a lot of people around at any given time,” says Gregory. “It was very demanding, logistically.”

About 2,300 people were evacuated and re-evacuated safely.

“Any time there’s a fire on board base, Long Rifle (range control) will shut down all [training] ranges and there is a full investigation – then we will reopen,” Gregory said.

There were no injuries due to the fires on base and structural damage is to be determined, but looks good, Gregory said. Initial reports indicate minimal loss of equipment or ammunition – with some damage to infrastructure. “It’s been a miraculous event thus far that we haven’t had any big problems,” Gregory said.

Nearing $3 million in operating expenses, Gregory speaks the Marines’ mindset.

“Everyone is worried about reacting to the crisis and getting to the end of it as quickly as possible. Money and cost is not something we’re going to worry about until the last person is back in their home.

“It’s all scalable,” Gregory said. “When the Las Pulgas Fire has 5 percent containment and balloons up to 15,000 acres, everybody is really worried. As the containment level goes up and everyone gets a handle on it, obviously we can shift our focus to other things.”

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Gregory praises Combat Camera correspondents and Combat Camera Marines on the ground that documented the crisis, because it was “specifically unsafe” for outside media. “They’ve done a fantastic job. All the images you see about how bad things were was a testament to them. After things started to calm down, they went to all the housing areas, office buildings – they posted it on Facebook and the Internet so people could have peace of mind…They could go look and see ‘my house is OK.’”

A May 19 press release stated “In total, fires on Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton and Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook – collectively known as the Basilone Complex — have burned 21,900 acres, nearly 18 percent of the base.

“Without the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighters from local, state and federal firefighting agencies along with military and civilian aircraft the damage to the base would have been much more extensive.” Included were remarks from Brigadier General John W. Bullard: “I’d like to give my sincere thanks to CALFIRE, the U.S Forest Service, Camp Pendleton Fire Department, I Marine Expeditionary Force, the Navy’s 3rd Fleet and all the various fire departments throughout California and Nevada for their incredible efforts in fighting these fires.”

Gregory assures, “As far as how they (the fires) started and how to prevent them – we’ll have to wait until the investigations are over. Internally, we’re always looking at how to improve our processes…so the next time this happens we will have our lessons learned and be able to provide a better response. We all depend on one another.”


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