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Wildland Firefighting and Army Engineer Training.

Combat engineer operations normally consist of missions that closely support the maneuver of land combat forces through mobility, countermobility, and survivability operations. During these missions, engineers shape the physical environment by using hand tools, bulldozers, and explosives, while receiving direct and indirect fire from the enemy in a combat zone. However, during the late summer of 2017, the Soldiers of Task Force Spearhead faced a special type of enemy--wildfire.

There are several reasons why engineers, rather than Soldiers from other branches, should be preferred for wildland firefighting missions. Engineer Soldiers from Task Force Spearhead quickly discovered that the tools and methods used by firefighting crews are strikingly similar to those used by Army engineers. The hand tools are the same as those found in pioneer tool kits. Bulldozing operations that are used to create firebreaks across terrain and burning operations that slow the advance of the fire are comparable to demolition operations used in countermobility. The wildfire mission is like a massive exercise in countermobility, which is one of the combat engineer's key tasks on the battlefield. These similarities allow engineer Soldiers to grasp the situation quicker than Soldiers from other branches. For example, firebreaks, which are normally emplaced with hand tools or dozers, are used to prevent fire from spreading from one side to another, similar to a block obstacle in the terrain, which is used to halt the advance of the enemy. If we think of it like this, the fire is our enemy and firefighters are simply manipulating the environment in a countermobility effort.

Both the wildland firefighter and the Army engineer specialize in shaping terrain to achieve a desired result. A common firefighting mission is to install interceptor dikes, diagonal trenches cut across downhill firebreaks to prevent excessive erosion and runoff by reducing the amount and speed of flow and then guiding it to another area. Some Soldiers were confused as to the purpose of the trenches when the 23d Brigade Engineer Battalion received the mission. However, the Soldiers decided that the interceptor dikes were essentially antivehicular ditches used to turn the enemy (in this case, water) away from its desired avenue of approach and to an area where water was needed much more. The engineers of the 23d Brigade Engineer Battalion rapidly adapted and excelled at any missions tasked to them.

The similarities between firefighting and military operations were also evident at the leadership level. Leaders at the platoon and company levels received their daily mission--as well as information about the composition, speed, and likely activity of the fires for the next 24 hours-from the incident commander. The interagency management team used this information to develop a plan, give guidance to its subordinates, and execute its mission set for the day. Often, the team worked only on the task and purpose it had received that morning.

An engineer commander or platoon leader encounters similar situations at a combined training center or when forward deployed. Engineer companies and platoons rarely fight together. They are often broken off from their organic chains of command and attached to a maneuver unit to provide engineer expertise and support. Then they must integrate into the organization, receive their mission, and accurately convey their capabilities. For example, within the first days of the wildland firefighting mission, it became clear to the firefighters that engineer Soldiers excelled at moving through steep terrain to perform manual labor with heavy packs. After a few days, the interagency management team began to adjust its plans accordingly. Engineer capabilities could be used to an advantage in a situation in which an infantry battalion commander overestimates or underestimates how fast the mobility support platoon can emplace an obstacle. Wildland firefighting proved to be a great opportunity for engineer leaders at company and platoon levels to receive experience in integrating and working with an interagency organization unfamiliar with its culture and capabilities.

The most surprising aspect of the wildland firefighting mission was how similar it was to the mobility and countermobility operations for which engineer Soldiers train in their collective tasks. When briefing Soldiers, leaders naturally began to use standard engineer terminology about terrain shaping to assist the Soldiers in understanding the task and purpose. No one could have anticipated that the wildland firefighting mission would not only allow the Soldiers to serve their country at home, but also provide an opportunity for the unit to train on its engineer-specific tasks.

First Lieutenant Martin is a platoon leader for Company A, 23d Brigade Engineer Battalion, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Engineer Basic Officer Leadership Course and the Sapper Leader Course. He holds a bachelor's degree in physics from The Ohio State University.

First Lieutenant Neil Martin and First Lieutenant Casey Trias

First Lieutenant Trias is a combat engineer platoon leader for Company A, 23d Brigade Engineer Battalion. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Engineer Basic Officer Leadership Course. He holds bachelor's degrees in exercise biology and psychology from the University of California-Davis.

Caption: Soldiers participate in a mission briefing.

Caption: Soldiers install interceptor dikes.
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Author:Martin, Neil; Trias, Casey
Publication:Engineer: The Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers
Date:May 1, 2018
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