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Nation Relying On Military As Fire Rescue Resources Dwindle

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This weekend, 250 Marines from Camp Pendleton in California are deploying to help fight wildfires devastating the West Coast. The troops don't have much, if any, experience fighting these kinds of fires. And as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the nation's resources are almost completely tapped out.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The military has two Army battalions with firefighting experience ready during bad wildfire years like this. They're already deployed, so to see the Marines getting called in, you know things are dire. Among those heading to the burning Sierra Nevada mountains this weekend is Gunnery Sergeant Warren Peace. That's right - "War And Peace." He was named after the book.

WARREN PEACE: (Laughter) I get that a lot.

SIEGLER: Sergeant Peace is deployed all over the world on humanitarian missions and disasters.

PEACE: Feels good because you're there doing good. You're there to help. But now I get to do it at home and help save property and public lands. And I get to do it in America, the country I swore an oath to.

SIEGLER: His battalion has been getting a crash course in wildland firefighter training at Camp Pendleton, which isn't hard to simulate. The base on the parched Southern California coast often gets its own wildfires. Once Peace arrives at the Creek Fire east of Fresno, he expects they'll help professional crews hold existing lines and try to keep containing the fire.

PEACE: They're not just sending a bunch of Marines out into the woods and say, put out some fires. We're going to be shadowing, I guess, the actual firefighters, who are going to be there to make sure we're safe, and we're effectively fighting this fire.

SIEGLER: The need for any and all help is extraordinary right now. Almost 7 million acres have burned. Oregon recently allowed college students to start school late so seasonal firefighters could stay on the job. And private firefighting contractors are racing to train more workers.

DEBBIE MILEY: This fire season came all at one time and later in the season than we've seen before.

SIEGLER: In Mill City, Ore., Debbie Miley runs an agency that represents private contractors, which make up about 60% of all the firefighting resources in the Pacific Northwest. She's trying to get an accounting of the heavy equipment her companies may still have available - a few engines, bulldozers and whether there's the manpower to run them.

MILEY: And we're, you know, actively working with the agencies to make sure that they're aware that those resources are out there.

SIEGLER: Now, Miley just returned to her house, but her office in Mill City is still evacuated due to the Beachie Creek Fire. Bad fire years like this when military troops have to be trained - it's a signal, she says, that things need to change. We can't keep spending all of our money on fighting fires when there's a lot of forest work firefighters could do in the off-season.

MILEY: Thirty years ago, these guys and gals were doing - 75% of the work they were doing was forest restoration kind of work. Now 75% of the work they're doing is fires. And we'd certainly like to see that pendulum swing back.

SIEGLER: Back to a time when more money was spent on preventing fires than fighting them.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.