Senior Airman Payton Chiou, 225th Support Squadron, Western Air Defense Sector, helps the Washington State Department of Natural Resources fight wildfires near Inchelium, Washington, Sept. 16, 2020. The 15-person Air National Guard crew spent more than 10 days fighting fires in eastern Washington.
By Capt. Colette Muller
Western Air Defense Sector
INCHELIUM, Wash. – An infrastructure technician from the Western Air Defense Sector, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, demonstrated the tremendous value of a drill status Guardsman this summer.
When Senior Airman Payton Chiou joined the Western Air Defense sector in 2016, he didn't know his training would become extremely valuable and he would be very busy in 2020. Chiou, who is a single-man kayaking coach in Gig Harbor, joined the unit with support from his father, Col. Peter S. Chiou, a former WADS air battle manager now working for the Air Force Reserves.
The year started out like most others, but once the COVID-19 virus hit in late February, Chiou found himself in a situation like most other Washingtonians, unable to continue his coaching job due to shutdowns and social distancing guidelines.
Then Chiou heard on the news that the National Guard was being called up by the state of Washington to help with programs and community needs that were overwhelming the state's existing resources. He called his command team at WADS and asked if he could help.
In early April, Chiou began working with hundreds of other Guard members helping out more than 40 food banks and food distribution centers throughout the state. Due to high demand, the warehouse Chiou worked at was completely empty three weeks after the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order and needed the help of the National Guard to ramp up to provide $6 million worth of meals each week to local families.
"We were basically an assembly line," said Chiou. "Individual food items would come in and we had civilian workers instructing us how many of each item to put into each box. That final box would be a single meal kit that would be sent out to food banks around the area."
As the state slowly reopened, the need for food bank support shrank and Chiou was back to his command team once again asking how he could help. This time he was assigned to the work with the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) to help process a massive backlog of unemployment claims received during the pandemic.
"We started out with processing the backlog and checking for identity verification to eliminate fraudulent claims," Chiou explained. "We finished that much faster than they expected, so then we started indexing and filing any additional supporting documentation that went with each claim."
Once the backlog was under control, members of the Guard were again released back to their units and civilian jobs. Chiou saw one more opportunity to volunteer and help his home state and stepped up for red card training, the wildland fire training from the Department of Natural Resources, the same provided to all wildland firefighters.
Fire training is a newer evolution for members of the Washington Air National Guard. This role had been filled with only Soldiers from the Army National Guard, but with seasonal fires on the rise the past several years, the Air Guard has stepped up to offer the training to its drill status Guard members.
Once fully trained to join a hand crew on a fire line, Chiou returned to Gig Harbor and was able to go back to coaching kayaking for the summer. He was ready to answer the call if wildfires grew larger than DNR could handle with their usual crews. In August, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a state proclamation allowing the Washington National Guard to be called up to support wildfire efforts. On Sept. 10, Chiou was called up once again.
Choiu and 49 other members of the Washington National Guard rode out to the western part of the state, assisting with the Whitney Fire in Davenport that burned more than 127,430 acres.
"Senior Airmen Chiou and his teammates worked hard to help contain the fire for four days," said Col. Raed D. Gyekis, 225th Air Defense Group commander. "In mid-September, they were repositioned from the Whitney Fire to the Inchelium Fire Complex, where more than 19,000 acres were burning. They did awesome."
After spending two weeks on the fire line, primarily working mop-up, the Air National Guard crew came home to the Puget Sound.
"I really enjoyed working on the fire line," said Chiou. "Lots of hands in the dirt checking for heat and making sure no hot spots were left behind. After this experience, I'm considering joining DNR next summer in more of a full-time capacity."
This year was more unusual than most, with the Guard also called up to manage civil disturbances. In each of these instances, National Guard members were asked to leave their civilian jobs and volunteer for temporary duty to help their state through difficult times.
"My advice to those wanting to join the National Guard, or already in," said Chiou. "Don't wait to be asked to help out. Talk to recruiters, talk to your command and get involved and see how you can help."
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