Lessons from Katrina, Sandy shaped quicker military response to Colorado fires

By WAYNE HEILMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: April 9, 2014

Colorado wildfires have taught military commanders how to respond more quickly to disasters, the deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command told Colorado Springs business and civic leaders during a luncheon Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. Michael D. Dubie said helicopters were battling the Black Forest fire last summer within two hours, much quicker than it took to respond to the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012.

He said the lessons learned during the Waldo Canyon fire, as well as superstorm Sandy the same year and previously during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, helped the command develop ways to respond more quickly to disasters.

Dubie spoke at the Antlers Hilton hotel during a luncheon hosted by the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

The military changed its command structure for large disasters as Sandy approached the East Coast by appointing a single commander who answers to federal and state officials, Dubie said. Previously, separate commanders answered for active-duty federal and state National Guard troops.

Now, when disaster strikes, the secretary of defense and the governor must agree to allow such "dual status" commanders to direct necessary military personnel.

"We didn't do a very good job in Katrina," the hurricane that hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Dubie said.

"I arrived (in Colorado Springs) at the end of the Waldo Canyon fire, but the sense was that the military response was slow. We learned many lessons for the Black Forest fire, and as soon as it started, Fort Carson had CH-47s (Chinook helicopters) on the fire within two hours," he said.

"We figured out that we couldn't wait (for help to be requested); we needed to be prepared to act as soon as we can."

Dubie also assured local officials that budget cuts that will move four C-130 aircraft from Peterson Air Force Base will not hamper Northern Command's ability to help fight wildfires in the West. None of the four planes is equipped with firefighting equipment, he said.

Under an Air Force budget plan, the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson, which helped fight the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, would lose 200 airmen and four of its 12 C-130 aircraft.

The cut would eliminate the 52nd Airlift Squadron, the reserve wing's lone squadron of full-time airmen, he said.

The 302nd was responsible for about 40 percent of the Air Force's firefighting effort in recent years. But firefighting is a small part of the 302nd's job, which is focused on hauling cargo and passengers, he said.

Dubie, a former fighter pilot who was named to his current post in 2012, also noted that the command's mission includes protecting North America from terrorist attacks or missile launches by hostile countries.

The command is responsible for defending the nation's computer networks and assessing missile launches, determining whether they are threat to North America and deciding whether to use the nation's missile defense system to shoot them down.

A helicopter battles the flames at Black Forest, Colo., June 12, 2013.


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