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Oregon National Guard heads to wildfire near Crater Lake

Spruce Lake Fire (Still image via Crater Lake National Park Facebook page)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Spc. Alex Beall, an Oregon National Guard member who fought in the war in Afghanistan, is being deployed along with more than 100 fellow guard members to take on a different foe: A wildfire at the state's iconic Crater Lake.

More than 100 members of the Oregon National Guard received refresher wildland firefighting training Tuesday at site outside of Salem, the state capital.

They were among 375 citizen soldiers and airmen who also fought fires in 2015, including a wildfire near the small city of John Day that destroyed 43 homes and nearly 100 barns, workshops and other structures.

"It's hot, it's sweaty, it's smoky, but it's an awesome and rewarding experience," said Oregon National Guard Lt. Col. Martin Balakas, recalling fighting another 2015 fire.

Balakas said he and the other guard members were taking a bus on Wednesday to battle the blaze near Crater Lake.

A wildfire incident report Wednesday morning said lightning in late July and early August ignited over 40 fires west of Crater Lake. The two biggest fires were about 60 percent contained and together covered a total of more than 15 square miles (25 kilometers). The area is south of the path of the total solar eclipse, which arrives on Monday.

The guard members wore yellow hardhats with goggles as they used tools to cut and move brush into piles where they were doused with a hose in Tuesday's training at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training complex.

Beall remembered doing a lot of walking as he and his team spent 21 days mopping up hotspots in 2015.

"It was really hard work, day after day after day," he said.

Beall, who is a FedEx driver from the city of Medford, said he preferred his combat deployment to firefighting.

The popular belief is that front line soldiers long for home. But after they return to domestic life, many miss the sense of urgency and purpose, the adrenaline-fueled rush and magnified experience of combat and the brotherhood among comrades in arms.

"I miss Afghanistan, weirdly," Beall said, recalling his brotherhood of soldiers at war.

But he said there was some of that feeling on wildfire fighting lines.

"There is that brotherhood," he said. "We take care of the person to the left and the right of each other."

The Oregon National Guard's agreement with the Oregon Department of Forestry, known as Operation Plan Smokey, details how national guard members assist in the state's annual firefighting efforts.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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