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NEWS | Nov. 24, 2020

W.Va. Guardsman Utilizes Unique Training to Save Neighbors Home from Wildland Fire

By Edwin Wriston

Sitting in their home in Winchester, Virginia, on the blustery evening of Tuesday, Nov.17, 2020, West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) Bandsman 1st Sgt. John Russell and his wife were enjoying a relaxing night of TV. Outside, high winds were blowing up an evening of unexpected excitement.

“As we were enjoying our show, suddenly, our power went out and we found ourselves in the dark,” stated Russell. “Through the window my wife saw a flickering orange light and exclaimed, ‘There’s a fire!’”

The high winds blowing outside had brought down a robust tree near his rural home, causing it to crash across and sever multiple power lines. Those live lines fell into dry underbrush, igniting a bright and powerful brush fire.

Russell, a 14-year member of the Guard, was uniquely prepared for this very situation. His unit, the 249th Army Band based in Morgantown, West Virginia, had undergone basic wildland firefighting training with the West Virginia Division of Forestry (WVDOF) in October of 2019 as part of an ongoing partnership to quickly allow Guardsmen to supplement and safely operate with WVDOF personnel in the event of large-scale wildland fires in West Virginia.

As his wife called 911, Russell jumped in his vehicle to go assess the situation.

Upon arriving at the fire, Russell saw that the dry leaves were providing ample fuel for the fire to grow, and the high winds were providing additional momentum, driving the fire up a hillside towards a neighbor’s home.

“The wind kept feeding the fire, and it started to spread quickly,” said Russell. “With the lack of rain, everything was dry and brittle. The fire was headed straight up the hill towards my neighbor’s house. Everything from our unit training came flooding back to me, and I realized I needed to get involved immediately.”

Russell assumed control of the scene as his training took over. Directing another neighbor who had shown up on the scene to warn the threatened neighbor of the impending danger, he rushed back to his home to grab tools to help fight the expanding fire. Arriving back on the scene with rakes and other garden tools, Russell instructed the neighbor and homeowner how to construct a fire line, helping them dig out a line 3 to 6 ft wide, down to the dirt, to isolate and starve the fire of new fuel sources. Soon, two local firemen arrived with proper wildland fire rakes, and Russell directed them to the wood line closest to the home.

“The fire had started creeping its way over into a brushier area and more severe raking was needed to clear debris,” stated Russell. “Embers were blowing everywhere and the smoke from the fire was thick and heavy. The firefighters, of course, had the proper fire rakes with sharp, serrated triangular steel blades and were able to easily attack the heavy debris and underbrush to clear a good line.”

Soon, the rest of the local fire department arrived, the power company was able to shut off the still sparking downed lines, and the neighbor’s home was safe from potential catastrophe.

Russell credits his training gained through the partnership between the WVNG and the WVDOF as the critical factor in helping secure and save his neighbors home.

“The training covered in the basic wildland fire fighting class included understanding fire behavior, suppression tactics and techniques, crew organization, communications, and crew safety and awareness. I was able to employ and utilize knowledge gained through the course in each of these factors leading to a successful night.”

“Everything the WVDOF taught us was accurate and extremely beneficial,” he added.

While his normal Guard duties finds him performing with his band mates at various official functions such as retirements, promotions, and during public engagements, Russell is thankful to gain additional knowledge and training outside his 42R Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) and the unique opportunities being a member of the Guard can provide.

“I have experienced quite a few beneficial and great things while being in the WVNG.  Education, a second career, access to affordable healthcare, amazing people, comradery, and unforgettable experiences. But the best parts I am leaning towards right now are learning the additional skills and trades you don't get trained in on the civilian side unless it's your job. The National Guard can provide a hands-on approach through multiple areas of training, and then in return, you can utilize what you have been trained for in your community when they are needed the most.”


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Video by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes
National Guard special forces operators participate in Exercise Ridge Runner 2023
National Guard Bureau
June 15, 2023 | 0:56
National Guard special forces operators with Charlie Company, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), their active duty special operations counterparts, allies, and partners from 18 nations participated in the Ridge Runner Irregular Warfare Exercise 2023, held throughout West Virginia, from May 27 to June 17. Ridge Runner is a dynamic and realistic exercise platform for the United States Special Operations Command and community of allies and partners that enables participants to train and validate readiness, while enhancing the nation's strategic irregular warfare capabilities. (U.S. Army Video by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes)