NEWS

Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD)
Assists Coordination in Battling Big Island Blaze

By Darrell D. Ames, JTF-HD Public Affairs


CH-53D from Helicopter Marine Heavy 463
CH-53D from Helicopter Marine Heavy 463 "Pegasus", Marine Air Group 24, Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, Kaneohe, HI. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz)

“This is a story of interagency cooperation and how well we were able to work with our partner agencies,” said Mel Garcia, Deputy J3 for Joint Task Force Homeland Defense (JTF-HD), referring to the Department of Defense (DoD) effort in assisting Hawaiian agencies and authorities in battling the recent wildfire at the U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii's Pohakuloa Training Area on the Island of Hawaii.

The blaze started Sunday morning Aug. 22 and burned at estimated 1,385 acres before finally being extinguished Sep. 29 although, according to Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) Fire Management Officer Wayne Ching, the fire was officially declared “controlled” on Oct 1 at 3 p.m.

“The quick response by each DoD element was instrumental in bringing this wildfire to a close,” said Robert Misajon, Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) Plans and Operations Officer. “The DoD interaction, particularly the Hawaii National Guard (HING), with the local and federal fire departments was a seamless operation,” Misajon added.

Firefighters battle Big Island blaze on the Pohakuloa Training Area. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz) Firefighters battle Big Island blaze on the Pohakuloa Training Area. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz)

In addition to JTF-HD and the Hawaii National Guard, other elements involved in the operation included the State of Hawaii’s Civil Defense and Joint Director of Military Support (JDOMS), Marine Aircraft Group 24 (MAG-24), Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 (HMH-463), the First Marine Air Wing (1st MAW), Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), DOFAW, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

“We want the public to know that they can rest easy, that our interagency coordination is operating at a high level and that we are competent and will help them in times of need,” said JTF-HD Operations Officer, Army Lt. Col. Shane Elkins. “Our Marines came through big time with the CH-53D helicopter, fire bucket, and crew,” said Elkins.

The PTA provided a Safety Officer, a planner to the Resources Branch of the Incident Command System’s (ICS) Planning Section, and a planner to the Logistics Section of the Incident Management Team (IMT). “We also operated our post Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to coordinate resources from internal assets, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, the 25th Infantry Division that just happened to be training at PTA at the time, the Incident Operations Center (IOC), U.S. Army Garrison, Hawaii (USAG-HI), and JTF-HD. The primary function of our EOC was to allow the Incident Commander (IC) to focus on the fire and not have to concern himself with obtaining resources or taking care of logistics matters,” said Misajon.

Hawaii County Fire Dept and U.S. Army Garrison- Pohakuloa Training Area Fire Dept. drawing water from a 325 BSB Hippo. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz) Hawaii County Fire Dept and U.S. Army Garrison- Pohakuloa Training Area Fire Dept. drawing water from a 325 BSB "Hippo". (Photo by Steven Nachowicz)

By all accounts the PTA teaming up with JTF-HD turned out to be a tremendous success story. “Our initial contact with JTF-HD came after the IC requested military helicopters to provide fire bucket support in containing the fire,” Misajon said. “We requested the support through the IOC and USAG-HI and for our part it was very helpful. We received aircraft as requested and coordinated,” added Misajon. Additionally PTA provided JTF-HD with incident situation reports (SITREPS), action plans, and clarifications when requested.

As Army fire crews, the Hawaii County Fire Department and personnel from National Park Service and Hawaii's Division of Forestry and Wildlife battled the blaze with tankers, brush tanks, fire engines, bulldozers and helicopters for days on end, high winds continued to affect visibility for those in the area due to blowing dust and ash circling through the dry air.

“We were fortunate on the Big Island that we have a Mutual Immediate Aid Agreement (MIAA) with other agencies for emergency response,” said Misajon. The Hawaii County Fire Department, DOFAW, and Hawaii Volcano National Park all provided firefighters within the first 24 hours. DOFAW responded with a significant effort and was able to surge personnel from the neighbor islands. “They also manned the key staff positions in the IMT, which allowed for efficient planning and operational assignments, and generally allowed for a well coordinated effort,” Misajon said.

Soldiers from the 325th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division, USAG-PTA Fire and Range Maintenance personnel, and personnel from Kiewit Construction moving the D-10 across Saddle Road. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz) Soldiers from the 325th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division, USAG-PTA Fire and Range Maintenance personnel, and personnel from Kiewit Construction moving the D-10 across Saddle Road. (Photo by Steven Nachowicz)

Ground crews conducted mop-up and patrol operations to ensure the fire was officially extinguished and smothered. No structures were burned and there were no reports of injuries to firefighters, Department of Defense (DoD) personnel, or civilians.

“DOFAW's efforts, the HIARNG providing UH60L/M support, the Marines providing CH53D support, National Parks, County Fire, JTF-HD, the Army Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization, and Support (DPTMS) crew…everybody made the effort a success,” said Misajon. “We also tip our hats to Kiewit Construction who is currently building a range at PTA. They called the EOC on the first day the blaze was reported to ask if they could help. Kiewit provided a D10 Bulldozer for two days to cut firebreaks at no cost. This act of generosity saved us up to $14,580.00,” Misajon said.

“DOFAW was the lead agency in the suppression efforts of the Mauna Kea fire,” said Ching, “Our efforts were successful in large part due to the cooperation and coordination conducted by the PTA and JTF-HD. I was extremely impressed with their training, ability, and confidence,” Ching said.

Firefighters from Oahu, Maui and the Big Island joined forces to douse the flames. Six helicopter crews (three contracted, one from Marine Corps Base Hawaii and two from the Hilo Hawaii Army National Guard) worked together to combat the spread of the fire. “The wildfire provided additional challenges for the firefighters because it centered on the south slope of Mauna Kea, where the terrain is steep with lava substrate and soil composed of volcanic ash,” said Garcia.

Local communities were affected during the blaze, as power and communication lines were damaged, but everyone teamed up to work toward the common goal of protecting the land and the environment. “It was a pleasure to see people and crews from all over the islands come together to work towards achieving our mission,” said Elkins. “The unity of effort was just outstanding. Everyone worked diligently to ensure the safety of all the troops, civilians and community members in the area,” Elkins said.

JTF-HD, with its Defense Coordinating Element, is based at Fort Shafter, Hawaii and is designated as the Homeland Defense coordinating agency between the Department of Defense and the civilian authorities in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands as well as three foreign governments in the Pacific to include the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. Working closely with Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and military organizations in the Pacific, JTF-HD maintains situational awareness, helps coordinate implementation of a comprehensive Critical Infrastructure Protection Program in these areas, and when required, coordinates and provides DOD resources to help save lives and prevent great property damage.