National Guard Exercise Takes Unexpected Twist in Michigan

A sudden fire off base added an unexpected sense of urgency and realism to a firefighting training exercise in Northern Michigan.

Firefighters participating in a National Guard joint fires readiness exercise were called to battle an inferno in nearby Alpena, Mich.

“This was one of the largest structural fires I’ve ever responded to,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Clay, fire protection specialist with the 106th Rescue Wing, Westhampton Beach, N.Y. “When we arrived, there was heavy smoke pouring out of the front of the building.”

Each year, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center hosts parts of Northern Strike 20, an exercise made up of about 6,000 service members from across the military. This year, a fire at the John A. Lau Saloon and Restaurant in downtown Alpena called for the service members to put their training into action.

Clay was one of four firefighters from the New York Air National Guard who participated in Northern Strike 20 for the last two weeks of July. 

“We arrived on scene as a rapid intervention team, as backup, and we quickly realized that more help was needed,” Clay said.

Two of the New York firefighters, Staff Sgt. Frank Quesada and Senior Airman Kerry Schmitt, entered the blazing structure to ensure everyone had evacuated. Afterward, the team continued working with local first responders to ensure the fire didn’t spread beyond the building.

The fire burned for more than five hours, but ultimately the firefighters got the blaze under control and protected nearby historic structures. 

“In my time here, we’ve never had firefighters from visiting units actually get to participate in a large structure fire in the city of Alpena,” said Steve Papineau, Alpena CRTC fire department crew chief. “When the local department found out they were actually working with someone from the New York City Fire Department, they thought that was pretty cool.”

Clay said his team went to Northern Strike for a chance at practical training opportunities like brush fires, hazardous material fires, and burning fuel. This year also tested their readiness for unpredicted situations and the ability to work outside of their local area.

“A deployment is our championship—that’s the goal that we’re always preparing for,” Clay said.

Some 6,000 Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and Special Forces participated in Northern Strike. The exercise, which included service members from 20 states and multiple NATO countries, took place at Michigan’s Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, according to a National Guard release.