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Firefighters at Rodriguez Range operate out of tents and cargo containers but there are plans for a permanent station at the training area to combat fires.
Firefighters at Rodriguez Range operate out of tents and cargo containers but there are plans for a permanent station at the training area to combat fires. (Seth Robson / S&S)
Firefighters at Rodriguez Range operate out of tents and cargo containers but there are plans for a permanent station at the training area to combat fires.
Firefighters at Rodriguez Range operate out of tents and cargo containers but there are plans for a permanent station at the training area to combat fires. (Seth Robson / S&S)
Rodriguez Range firefighter Pak Chan-chun tests his breathing mask with the help of Area I safety technician Chang Sum-tok.
Rodriguez Range firefighter Pak Chan-chun tests his breathing mask with the help of Area I safety technician Chang Sum-tok. (Seth Robson / S&S)

RODRIGUEZ RANGE, South Korea — Area I firefighters have cut the time needed to put out wildfires ignited in live-fire training here from eight hours to less than one by setting up a permanent station at the range.

Camp Casey Garrison Fire Chief Jerry Epperson, 54, of Killeen, Texas, said Tuesday that 25 firefighters and two engines moved to Rodriguez Range from recently closed Western Corridor bases late last year.

There were 39 wildfires at Rodriguez Range last spring, most of them burning between 30 and 60 minutes, compared with an average burn time of eight hours before the firefighters were based at the range, he said.

“We used to come up from Camp Casey. There were fires that we would fight for two or three days,” he added.

The Rodriguez Range firefighters live in barracks and operate from tents and cargo containers, but a permanent fire station is planned, Epperson said.

“When the 2nd Brigade Combat Team came up here to train for last year’s Iraq deployment,” he said, “we came up here to protect them and we never left.”

The Rodriguez Range firefighters and engines used to be stationed at Camp Howze and Camp Stanton in the Western Corridor. Two engines and crews remain in the Western Corridor, at camps Boniface and Giant, to guard against fires on recently closed installations. When the bases are handed back to South Korea later this year, just one Western Corridor crew will be retained — at Warrior Base — to fight fires at training areas north of the Imjin River, Epperson said.

Most fires at ranges in South Korea are ignited by impacting mortar rounds and exploding tank shells, he said.

The Army uses special ammunition during training designed to minimize fire risk, but during spring and autumn, when foliage is extremely dry, fires are common, Epperson said.

And because of danger from unexploded ordinance, areas where live-fire shells have landed are not cleared of vegetation. Instead, firefighters allow fires to burn through such areas, attacking them from a safe distance with hoses, he said.

Firefighters watch closely for half-buried shells. During range fires, they often hear such ordnance explode amid the flames, Epperson said.

Rodriguez Range fire crew chief Kwak Sang-yol said a large mountain behind the range caught fire in November and blazed for two days. The other fire crew chief at the range, Kim Su-ho, said many parts of the range are dangerous, but firefighters sometimes have to go in to fight fires, especially in winter when helicopters cannot lift water from iced-up rivers to drop on the flames.

“Sometimes there is white smoke … sometimes there is black smoke. … We worry about things like (depleted) uranium because there are a lot of old rounds on the range,” he said.

Epperson said depleted uranium shells were used at the range during the 1990s but no longer are used for training.

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