Fort Hood soldiers undergo training to fight wildfires raging across West

BOISE, Idaho - About 600 soldiers landed in Boise Tuesday for a crash course in firefighting before taking to the steep, smoldering slopes in west-central Idaho's Payette National Forest.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise said 35 fires are burning more than 638,000 acres in nine states. That prompted the U.S. Army to deploy hundreds of soldiers to reinforce thousands of civilian firefighters.

''With so many wildfires going on, there just isn't enough manpower,'' said Sven Klassen, a fire captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, who gave soldiers the first course at Fort Hood, Texas, before their departure.

Klassen and other fire officials accompanied the soldiers to Idaho, where they undergo a couple days of hands-on field training before being dispatched to the 15,000-acre Burgdorf Junction Fire north of the resort town of McCall.

Another 500 Marines began training in California on Tuesday and should be in Idaho by week's end to go up against the Clear Creek blaze near the Montana border.

The last time the fire center mobilized military units was in 1996, when 3 million acres had burned by July 25. The last time Fort Hood soldiers were sent to battle wildfires was 1994.

''It is all coming back to me now,'' said Sgt. Richard Wood of the 588th Engineers as he donned a day-glow backpack, hard hat and equipment belt for his second deployment to a wildfire.

''I'm ready to head back up there and help those folks,'' said Wood, who spent 45 days in 1994 battling Idaho wildfires.

But it was all new to Spc. Keith Weiss, dressed in a yellow fire shirt and camouflage pants.

''I don't think anybody believes it will be enjoyable, but it's something to help the country,'' he said. ''That's our job for the Army.''

Wildfires have charred 3.5 million acres. That is on pace to surpass the acreage burned in 1988, fire center spokeswoman Michelle Barret said.

''The bad news is that for parts of the country their fire season is just beginning,'' she said. ''It is stretching our resources.''

Dennis Pendleton, Forest Service chief at the fire center, said the big fires now burning demand a huge amount of resources, including military troops.

Lt. Col. Darryl Williams, task force commander, said the Fort Hood soldiers are in artillery, so they do a great deal of lifting weights to prepare for moving live shells and are fit for the work.

The soldiers, who are on a 30-day assignment, will start out mopping up the smoldering remains of the Burgdorf fire and then may take on other tasks, including cutting fire line.

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