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    Assisting a neighbor in need

    Assisting a neighbor in need

    Courtesy Photo | Lt. Col. Bruce Simpson (second from left) along with Capt. Angelica Hayes (third from...... read more read more



    Story by Master Sgt. John Hughel 

    Washington Air National Guard

    TUMWATER, Wash. - What began as a rare low-pressure weather system from the northeast, pushed a front of penetrating dry air westward, over the Cascade Range Sept. 5-6, 2020, helping spark a succession of wildfires across Oregon.

    By midweek, more than 500,000 acres were burning as the rapidly spreading wildfires forced the evacuation of thousands escaping nine counties. Oregon was not alone as the unprecedented wildfires were also consuming large portions of California and Washington state.

    During a news conference on Sept. 9, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced an immediate request for assistance, “to free up federal resources to support our response efforts,” that would encompass aid for search and rescue, food assistance, shelter provisions and mortuary assistance.

    Answering the call, Lt. Col. Bruce Simpson, the Headquarters Washington Air National Guard’s Director of Force Support, was one of the first volunteers out the door.

    Because Simpson was serving in an active-duty capacity with the Washington National Guard and working with the Department of Health, it was quicker for him to simply take military leave time to head south across the Columbia River and assist multiple agencies in critical need in his normal FEMA role.

    In one of his two civilian professions, he serves as a medicolegal investigator within the Health and Human Services Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team or DMORT. Responding to requests by local authorities, DMORT helps local authorities and mortuary services locate remains and accurately identify victims.

    “Local officials were overwhelmed,” he said, describing the recovery effort in Jackson County, Oregon. “Generally people get out of the way in time with wildfires but with winds topping 50 knots, it moved too fast for some to escape.”

    The flames hit southern Oregon especially hard killing nine people as a result of the Almeda, Beachie Creek and Holiday Farm Fires. The thick black smoke and deep amber orange skies made not only fighting the fires tough but also created confusion for some trying to leave.

    “The sheriff department in many cases went door to door to get people out,” Simpson said. “It could have been much worse but a lot of pets perished in these fires.” For this DMORT mission, we deployed four forensic anthropologists to help local authorities determine if skeletal remains found in the ashes of homes were human or animal bones.

    With a morgue set up in Albany, Oregon, Simpson helped the Oregon Air National Guard’s 142nd Wing’s Fatality Search and Rescue Team, or FRST, with training as they worked on some of these recovered remains.

    “I’ve worked with (Lt. Col.) Kelly Barton before and Capt. (Angelica) Hayes so it helped to have a familiar reference point working with military FRST members,” he said.

    For the last two years, Hayes has been part of the 142nd FRST and is currently the unit’s commander. The team of nine members worked primarily in Albany and responded to the call for assistance having just spent four days of training in an exercise Sept. 8-11. The members were already on hand to react to the fires, having done several ‘dry runs’ before they left the Portland Air National Guard Base.

    “Everyone stayed really upbeat and there was a lot of teaching each other once we received our orders and got out the door,” said Hayes, who had worked for the Army Corp of Engineers before joining the unit two years ago.

    This was the first time the unit’s FRST team had been called into a real-life disaster situation so the recent training expedited getting the gear ready, but more importantly, helped focus the members for the task.

    FRST members are part of 27 nationally certified teams, and each team typically consists of 10 Airmen specializing in the recovery of human remains in a mass fatality incident.

    “Overall, it’s great to have these agencies in place for us to work with, like OHA (Oregon Health Authority) and the State Police -- I was pretty blown away by everyone’s positive attitude,” she said. “It was an honor to serve the community in their hour of need.”

    For Simpson, as a National Guard member, he had also responded to the 2014 Oso, Washington, landslide. The massive mudslide killed 43 people and hundreds of first responders, much like these wildfires, were called in for Immediate assistance.

    “In these challenging situations, I wanted to be able to lend support in any way possible,” he said. “This is where these ‘joint’ interagency conditions rely on familiarity -- it’s important so that everyone can work together,” Simpson said.

    Simpson relates this to his “Know-Like-Trust” model.

    “When we come in to lend support, we try and quickly get to ‘know’ each other, and when we ‘like’ each other, it’s easier to build the ‘trust’ needed to work together and accomplish the mission.”

    He also assisted the Emergency Command Center in Salem and other operational areas impacted along the 1-5 corridor in Eugene and Springfield.

    “There’s a well-known phrase in the emergency management career field that, ‘You shouldn’t be exchanging your business cards for the first time at the fire,’ but to already have working relationships in a place where others can step in immediately.”

    In these situations, Simpson’s ability to wear many hats comes in to play quite often. Just this year alone, he has responded to multiple COVID-19 response missions, beginning in March with the Grand Princess Cruise ship quarantine at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. Working in an active-duty capacity with the State of Washington, he has been supporting COVID-19 medical response for the Department of Health.

    “In my FEMA uniform, I also supported the office of the chief medical examiner for the city of New York in April of this year,” he said.

    This was when the pandemic was inundating New York City; morgue facilities were being set up quickly around the city to accommodate the growing numbers of fatalities. Simpson worked in Manhattan and Brooklyn to establish overflow morgue procedures.

    Yet the wildfires hit closer to home for Simpson, who lives in Ellensburg, Washington, and spends a great deal of his time hiking and exploring the forest areas west of the Columbia River in the Kittitas Valley.

    “The American west is going to burn again, it’s getting drier and hotter with our changing climate,” he said. “For first responders, we are going to have to build on these adversities and relationships when the next fire happens.”



    Date Taken: 10.08.2020
    Date Posted: 10.08.2020 08:23
    Story ID: 380529
    Location: TUMWATER, WA, US 

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