SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
While Schriever has been fortunate enough to avoid wildfires on base, for one of the base’s geographically separated units, the 21st Space Operations Squadron, things have not fared as well. 21 SOPS personnel faced evacuation and relocation after wildfires threatened the squadron’s Ellison Onizuka Satellite Operations Facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in late September.
According to Vandenberg’s website, the South Base fires were the largest in its history, burning more than 12,500 acres in the area. Subsequently, a spout of fires burned miles apart on North Base.
One of these fires burned within 30 feet of the facility’s fence line.
“It was a Thursday afternoon and security forces came running in telling us to evacuate,” said Chris Babauta, 21 SOPS facility program manager. “I got on the public announcement system and announced it. It was surprising since we normally train for fires inside the building, not outside.”
Upon evacuation, 21 SOPS personnel were redirected to a safe area. No personnel were injured in the fire, however it left its mark on the EOSOF facility.
“Some smoke made its way into the facility and in the ventilation system,” said Babauta. “The air quality was poor, luckily we able to clear the smoke smell out.”
All 21 SOPS members at the facility relocated to the Vandenberg Tracking Station for four days while the smoke cleared.
Further damage was prevented thanks to the rapid response of Vandenberg firefighters and other fire personnel from throughout the state, who were already battling the massive fire to the south.
“They were prompt, bringing in DC-10’s and helicopters with water buckets,” said Lt. Col. Phillip Verroco, 21 SOPS commander. “They were extremely professional and did a spectacular job forming a team. Without them things could’ve been a lot worse.”
Fortunately, the wildfires did not impact the overall mission for the 21 SOPS personnel, which is essential for the Air Force Satellite Control Network. The 21 SOPS mission is to plan and conduct specialized communications for a wide spectrum of space systems, including the AFSCN. The squadron supports 175 satellites, updating AFSCN communication resources and providing information to numerous command centers.
Members from both 21 SOPS and its host 30th Space Wing are working on improving training for future fires, said Babauta.
“We’ve gone through exercises, adding additional procedures to our emergency management binders,” he said. “Through our work with the 30th Space Wing we are developing a good EM process, including new evacuation and response procedures.”