With Wildfire Risk High, Military Alters Training

Colonel Crow demonstrating practice techniques at the indoor firing range simulator at Camp Swift, Texas.
Colonel Crow demonstrating practice techniques at the indoor firing range simulator at Camp Swift, Texas.

CAMP SWIFT, Texas — Camp Swift, a training area for Texas soldiers, lies several miles north of the area charred this week by the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. But 1,500 acres of the camp burned in a different fire last month, after a soldier used a grenade simulator in an unauthorized place.

“This stuff went up like a Roman candle,” said Col. Robert Crow, the commander of the training centers for the Texas Army National Guard, as he gestured toward dead pine trees.

As the worst one-year drought in Texas history wears on, officials at Camp Swift and other military installations around the state are figuring out how to keep training while reducing fire risks. 

Some large fires have begun this year on firing ranges, including a 3,700-acre blaze that started last week and is now mostly contained at Fort Hood (in total over 14,000 acres have burned on the base's range since June, officials say). At Camp Bowie, a Texas Army National Guard training site roughly 150 miles northwest of Austin, tracer fire sparked a 4,000-acre blaze this spring.

Billy Rhoads, the fire chief at Fort Hood, estimated that more than 50 fires had occurred since the drought began, “and I may be low on that,” he added. 

Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, has had four small fires this year, as opposed to two last year, according to Karla Gonzalez, a base spokeswoman.

The tinderbox conditions across Texas seem likely to continue: La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that experts blame for the drought, has returned and is expected to persist into the winter.

The military is making adjustments. In May, Crow banned the use of tracer ammunition at all Texas Army National Guard camps, including Camp Swift and Camp Bowie. (Other military personnel also train at these camps.) Tracers, which are normally fired every fifth round, are phosphorous-tipped, allowing the trajectory to be a visible red streak, but they are also highly flammable. Crow has also banned the use of most pyrotechnics, including smoke grenades and artillery simulators. The areas where soldiers are allowed to smoke cigarettes have shrunk as well.

In past years, devices like smoke grenades did not generally cause issues, but “now they’re just as culpable to start a fire as a lit match,” Crow said. 

Rhoads said that at Fort Hood, the “use of pyrotechnics and incendiary-type ammunition has been halted.” Sometimes helicopters have also “pre-soaked” parts of the base ahead of an exercise, he said, and other firefighting equipment may be pre-positioned.

At Fort Sam Houston, "Conditions are continually monitored to determine if the use of pyrotechnics, tracer rounds or other such items will be permitted," according to Gonzalez.

Military officials say the modifications will not hamper training and readiness. Crow, speaking at Camp Swift, said that some training already involves indoor simulators, which do not pose a fire risk.

At Fort Hood, “they just rotate the training schedule,” said Christopher Haug Sr., a spokesman for the base, so that soldiers do different types of exercises during the dry conditions.

Some other bases have made fewer adjustments. At Fort Bliss, which is near El Paso and accustomed to dry conditions in the best of times, use of the firing ranges is scheduled up to a year in advance, according to Gene Offutt, a public affairs officers. "The training cannot be curtailed," she said, as soldiers are preparing for upcoming deployments, but the base undertakes measures to mitigate fire risk, and "firefighters from Fort Bliss and the Bureau of Land Management are constantly on the ready should a fire break out."

But even with the best preparations, things can go awry. A few weeks ago, regular ammunition started a small blaze at Camp Bowie, where sparks can fly when bullets hit the limestone rocks.

No tracers were involved, Crow said, yet “we still had a fire.”

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