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Local National Guardsmen called to battle forest fires 
By Joan Haines
August 1, 2000

Fifty National Guardsmen from Bozeman and Livingston will have a chance to be all that they can be on fire lines this week, battling blazes in the Canyon Ferry fire complex near Helena.

For the first time in six years, the 1-163rd Infantry Battalion, headquartered in Bozeman, was called up by Gov. Marc Racicot to fight fires, 1st Lt. Dan Eckerson, battalion adjutant, said Monday.

Fourteen trucks and a bus filled with Guardsmen and women left for Helena Sunday. Forest Service personnel were to train the soldiers how to fight fires Monday and today. 

"Most of them will end up scraping fire line with a pick and shovel," Eckerson said. They'll be required to wear stifling firefighting gear in temperatures hovering at more than 90 degrees even without searing flames. Some of the guardsmen will also be transporting firefighters in trucks.

They should be battling the Cave Gulch fire in the Canyon Ferry Lake area near Helena by Wednesday. 

Call-up is for 15 days.

One reason the unit may have been called up was that the soldiers had just returned from a two-week summer training session in Boise and were in top physical form, Eckerson said. 

"We put up with 100-degree temperatures and with temperatures between 88 and 95 degrees the whole time we were in Idaho," Eckerson said. 

Soldiers from the battalion had been home only a week before the Sunday call-up.

Emily Hall, wife of Maj. Rex Hall, the battalion's executive officer, said Monday she is "proud her husband is able to serve the state when he's needed.

"He's a good leader," Hall said. "He'll be working side-by-side with the enlisted men. On the fire line, there's no rank."

Her husband only had time to breeze through their home between military assignments. 

"I barely got the sand out of his uniform," Hall said. But, she added, "he was home long enough to make a mess" 

Hall herself is the coordinator of the family readiness program, which trains families in preparation for "military separation so spouses and their children can maintain the home front," she said. 

Spouses are encouraged to get to know others in the military community. That way they can "vent and joke and get through it with somebody going through the same thing," Hall said.

Rhonda McLane, wife of 1st Sgt. Rich McLane, also said she'd seen her husband only a short time before he had to leave home.

"On the flip side, that's why they signed up," McLane said. "They're here to help the community. That's what they trained for."

She said he's been in the National Guard for 17 years.

"I'm proud of him for stepping up to the plate and helping even though I miss him," McLane said.

The last time the 1-163rd Infantry Battalion was called to fight a fire was in 1994, when their destination was Libby. Some in the unit fought the devastating Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988, which burned about one-third of the park. Other soldiers participating in the effort are from Billings, Lewistown, Great Falls, Anaconda, Missoula and Hamilton.

Any family member needing family assistance can call the Emergency Operations Center at 586-2922 or 1-800-315-1148.