Intel Airmen play critical role fighting east Tennessee wildfires
By Senior Airman Anthony Agosti, 118th Wing
/ Published January 08, 2017
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The wildfires in east Tennessee were devastating to the people living in the region, but due to the intuitive work of some Airmen from Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, Tennessee, the blow was softened.
Airmen from the 236th Intelligence Support used their skills as digital and geospatial imagery analysts to provide critical maps and imagery products to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and other groups fighting the wildfires in Sevier County, Tennessee Dec. 3-9, 2016.
When the wildfires first started on Nov. 28, 2016, Tech. Sgt. Daron, a member of the 236th IS, was called out to assist in his civilian capacity. While working in the incident command center, he realized that the 236th IS could provide valuable assistance to groups fighting the fires.
"There was a lot of things they were lacking on the ground; there were areas our first responders could not access yet because of road blockages, mudslides, and debris crossing the roads," said Daron. "I made contact with the 236th IS commander and told her the capabilities we have in geospatial imagery can be very beneficial; we could provide safe routing to search and rescue."
This information was quickly brought to the attention of Lt. Col. Jay, the deputy commander of the 118th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group.
"We have imagery analysts and damage assessors in our group; we saw a need that we could possibly help with," said Jay. "We talked with the Joint Emergency Operations Center and asked if there was anything we could do to help them."
TEMA, the Gatlinburg Fire Department, and the other agencies fighting the fire gladly accepted the help. The 236th IS sent liaisons to the incident command center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and to Joint Force Headquarters in Nashville to help request information, coordinate, and analyze imagery going in and out.
"The Gatlinburg Fire Department obviously had never seen anything to this scale and was still trying to organize search and rescue," said Staff Sgt. Lori, the liaison from the 236th IS sent to Gatlinburg. "We were able to provide them with new routes to take for search and rescue and provide routes for the hot spots."
Jay estimated that due to the 236th IS's work in mapping the destruction, the area received federal disaster recognition and funding about a week earlier than it would have had they not been called to help.
The wildfires received a major disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Dec. 15, 2016.
Overall 14 people lost their lives, 17,410 acres burned, and 2,460 structures were destroyed in the wildfires, according to USA Today. The satellite imagery and mapping provided by the 236th IS helped identify nearly 1,300 structures lost in the fire, including areas previously unknown to first responders.
"We were told by the TEMA director that one of the products our folks did showing the damage actually identified an entire neighborhood that TEMA was unaware had been destroyed," said Jay. "Then they were able to send search and rescue crews in at that point."
While this was the first domestic operation for most of the Airmen in the 236th IS, leadership was very happy with the initiative they saw from their Airmen.
"The sole reason we got involved is because our Airmen saw what was going on in east Tennessee and felt like we could do something to help; I think that speaks volumes about your Guardsmen and about the minuteman mentality," said Jay. "My hats off to them. They didn't wait to be called, they wanted to just go and offer their services."