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Wash. Army, Air National Guard units practice responses to toxic leaks, natural disasters, more

Jun. 25, 2013 - 11:01AM   |  

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CAMP MURRAY, WASH. — Depending on the season, Washington state faces a variety of natural disasters.

Wildfires in the summer give way to floods and storms in the winter. And earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions are a risk year round.

With that in mind, the state Department of the Military organized emergency preparedness briefings for state officials, many of whom are relatively new to their roles after arriving in Olympia this year with Gov. Jay Inslee.

While at Camp Murray, state leaders toured the joint force headquarters of the Army and Air Force National Guard. From there they boarded a pair of heavy-duty military helicopters that flew them to the Yakima Training Center.

The Chinook helicopters, known for their twin rotors, dropped the government workers into a National Guard wildfire training exercise.

Guard members were facing the scenario of a series of wildfires caused by lightning in eastern Washington and chemical and fuel explosions in Kennewick.

In one tent on the site, soldiers gathered around computer screens and considered information such as a mock weather forecast while large monitors on the wall showed units out fighting blazes.

Nearby, officials saw about 200 guard members train by digging fire lines and carrying hoses.

From there, the group of state leaders went to the Hammer training facility in Richland, where soldiers responded to a variety of scenarios, ranging from a potential toxic leak from an overturned tanker to a search-and-rescue exercise from a building.

Mary Alice Heuschel, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, said briefings allowed those new to state government, such as herself, to become better prepared.

“We have to make sure there’s an awareness of what it takes to pull this together,” she said.

Major Gen. Bret D. Daugherty, commander of all Washington Army and Air National Guard forces and director of the state’s emergency management programs, said the training was a good way to remind state officials of the National Guard’s role in any disaster.

With the National Guard having faced numerous deployments during the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, Daugherty said, “We just have not had the time to spend re-educating ourselves and focusing on our domestic responsibilities in the way that we really feel we need to do.”

Daugherty, who also serves as Inslee’s homeland security adviser, said he plans to have additional training opportunities for Cabinet members in the coming months, including one dealing with floods and winter storms, and another addressing earthquakes.

“The war is thankfully coming to an end,” he said. “And that allows us an opportunity to focus back on our traditional mission of domestic response.”

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