Guard Preps for Aftermath of California Fires

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. (Army News Service, Oct. 31, 2007) - Under a sky still smoky from active wildfires, National Guard Citizen-Soldiers prepared for the flash floods and mudslides that will come long after the flames are extinguished.

About 50 Soldiers from the California Army National Guard's Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery set out to fill about 5,000 sandbags for residents in the Valley Center area north of San Diego. Other National Guard units performed the same service in other communities hit by the Southern California wildfires.

"The purpose is to help residents out here when the rainy season starts so they're sure to have something to protect their houses so they don't get flooded," said 1st Lt. Nelson Varas of Alpha Battery.

Wildfires like the ones that have hit Southern California this month are typically followed by flash floods and mudslides. That's because rain runs off faster when vegetation is gone; and also because fire changes the chemistry of the soil.

In some places, the burning process creates a waxy coating on the soil hindering the absorption of water and speeding its flow, fire officials explained. The phenomenon is known as hydrophobicity. Water beads and runs over hydrophobic soil instead of soaking in, increasing the likelihood of flash floods and mudslides for months following wildfires.

Sandbags can protect homes and businesses from water and mud damage. The sandbags will be stored for distribution by area fire departments and the California Department of Forestry, said 1st Sgt. John Wood of Alpha Battery.

Like many of the Citizen-Soldiers working to fill sandbags, 1st Lt. Varas has served in Iraq. He balances a civilian job with his family, overseas deployments and homeland missions.

"We're all dedicated," he said. "We know what we signed up for."

1st Lt. Varas was particularly pleased to serve in his own backyard. "That's what we're here for," he said. "That's our mission. We're National Guard. We're part of the state, and since we've got a crisis going on and people need help, the National Guard's here for that."

For Alpha Battery's Spc. Angel Flores, the sandbag mission was only his second time reporting to his unit after a stint on active duty. During his year in Baghdad, Flores's thoughts frequently turned to the family, friends and community that his service separated him from. He was still thinking of them as he filled sandbags Oct. 27.

"I figure that the people who need it most are the people that I was thinking about while I was gone," Spc. Flores said.

National Guard members said the gratitude they get from the neighbors they're helping only makes the task easier. In Southern California, restaurants have refused to let Soldiers and Airmen pay for meals, retailers have declined payment for supplies and residents have offered handshakes and pats on the back.

"It's been outstanding support," 1st Lt. Varas said.

"We're happy to be here to help," said Sgt. Timothy Miller. "You have to take care of home. Home comes first."

More than 2,500 Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen have been assisting civilian authorities tackling the Southern California wildfires. The National Guard has provided communications capabilities, supplied fire incident commanders with aerial images of the fires, dropped water from helicopters and retardant from aircraft, patrolled evacuated neighborhoods, handed out relief supplies and performed numerous other tasks.