National Guard Responds To State Of Emergency

SPOKANE — From Eastern Washington and North Idaho, soldiers and airmen of the National Guard who have been called upon to serve in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are now pitching in to help the Inland Northwest.

The State of Emergency declared across Eastern Washington has allowed Governor Christine Gregoire to call out the National Guard to help civilians deal with winter weather, and on Tuesday members of the Fairchild-based 141st Air Refueling Wing set their sights on snow drifts along Valley Chapel Road near Highway 27 and Rockford.

Most roads are still passable on the Palouse but it doesn’t take very long for blowing snow to close them down to one lane. While snow can close major airports from time to time Fairchild Air Force Base can’t afford to close, so now the same equipment used to keep runways clear for air tankers is chewing through snow drifts near Rockford.

“It’s up to twelve feet I think they’ve said they’ve been trying to knock down some of these berms so it’s a real challenge and they are enjoying it,” 141st ARW Public Affairs Officer Lt. Colonel Nancy Reid said.

Inside the twin engine Oshkosh high speed snow blower Staff Sergeant Chris May was grating his way through the worst winter in a dozen years on Tuesday.

“There’s so much weight into the snow that it’s forcing the machine over to the left so it’s a matter of cutting into it deep enough to keep it on a straight line,” SSgt. May said.

The Air Guard’s drift busting snow thrower is a welcome sight to UPS driver Pat Johns, whose rural customers depend on his daily deliveries despite the near white out conditions.

“You know the real problem is when you can’t tell there was ever a road there. You’ve probably seen it before you know there’s a road there but there’s no evidence of it,” Johns said.

Right now Washington State and the Pentagon are fighting over whether this equipment should be shipped somewhere else given that Fairchild Air Base’s civil engineers have their own snow removal team.

However this winter is certainly giving the governor more ammunition for her argument that the equipment should remain with the Air Guard at Fairchild.

Across the stateline in North Idaho for the second day in a row Specialist Eric Mather with the Idaho Army National Guard has climbed on top of the Mullan High School gym with a shovel in his hands.

“A little tired from yesterday, woke up this morning pretty sore, so it was a little hard gettn’ started first thing,” Spc. Mather said.

Mather got the call last Friday he may be needed to shovel snow and by Saturday he was on the road headed to Shoshone County with his fellow National Guardsmen, dropping everything at a moments notice to help out.

“My wife’s birthday, it was on Sunday too, but she understands too,” Spc. Mather said.

Right now the Guardsmen are pitching in shoveling snow off school roofs around North Idaho.

“They can’t do private residences or business of any sort by law doesn’t allow them to do that,” Captain Darell Braaton with the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office said.

If a county needs help removing snow in other areas the Guard can bring in heavy equipment to haul it away, making it easier for residents to get around town.

“It brings resources into the are that the smaller counties can’t afford to do as well as manpower that isn’t available,” Capt. Braaton said.

While the Guardsmen in Iraq, mobilized by the State of Emergency, are providing relief to local counties, the declaration however brought little financial relief.

In Clearwater County for example, the county is renting big equipment to haul snow and hopes it will be reimbursed by the state.

Emergency officials are also worried about where all the snow will go and that is no longer a matter of if but when the area will see flooding when the snow melts and emergency responders from five North Idaho counties will be meeting Thursday in Coeur d’Alene to address that very issue.