NEVADA CITY, Calif. (KTXL) — The National Guard is partnering with Cal Fire to help fight wildfires across the state.
“It was a program by the governor as a fuels reduction crew,” Sgt. John Spragg told FOX40.
The operation, Task Force Rattlesnake, was formed in 2019 when forest management became a concern after the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise.
Members of the National Guard volunteered to work alongside Cal Fire to clear forest fuels.
“So we’ll go in there with chainsaws, make piles, cut up trees, dead trees specifically and just make the forest more healthy,” explained Nathaniel Malone, a Task Force Rattlesnake specialist.
When COVID-19 hit, Cal Fire lost inmate crews who were released early during the pandemic.
“I thought it was just fuel reduction at first, and then I got here and probably like my fifth day, we went to a fire and I was like, ‘Oh, so we’re a fire crew. All right, got it.’” Malone recalled.
Lt. Angelo Ramento, another member of the task force, added, “We just signed up to do fuel management, and now, we’re responding to fires. … that’s pretty exciting. We’re learning new skill sets and we feel that instant I’d say gratification of helping the public, which is very very fulfilling.”
Now, hundreds of Guardsmen across 13 crews up and down the state are helping Cal Fire battle flames.
“We’re spread all the way from Mendocino, Redding, all the way down to San Diego, and then, they’re trying to open more crews all the time,” Spragg said.
Many see this as a stepping stone to get into the Cal Fire Academy and become full-time firefighters.
“Myself, I’m going to the academy in January, so I’ll be hopefully a Cal Fire employee next year,” Malone explained.
Although the program has been successful so far, Task Force Rattlesnake is still operating in a temporary capacity.
The crew is living out of a nearby hotel and working on contracts that are only a few months long, but they hope this partnership between the National Guard and Cal Fire becomes a permanent operation.
“I definitely see a long future for this program and this partnership with Cal Fire,” Spragg said.
Task Force Rattlesnake is using emergency COVID-19 funding to operate. Their funding will expire in June 2022, and members of the task force hope the state can find a permanent funding solution to expand the program.