BALSAM LAKE, Wis. — Elements of the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard mobilized to Polk, Barron, and Langlade counties following the severe weather that struck the area July 19-20 are on the verge of completing their assigned debris clearance missions in those counties.
Approximately 100 Soldiers and Airmen remain on state active duty to assist civil authorities with damage assessment and debris clearance as they begin work on the last few miles of roadways assigned by county officials.
The debris clearance operations are expected to conclude in the next few days, with 53 of the approximately 56 miles of assigned road officially cleared, after service members hauled away more than 1,300 10-ton truck loads of felled trees, brush, and other debris. The clear roads provide safe pathways for citizens and emergency responders, and ensure that snow can be cleared from the road in the upcoming winter months.
Maj. James Schmitz, the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team brigade engineer and protection cell officer-in-charge, serves as the Wisconsin National Guard’s liaison officer for northwest Wisconsin in Polk and Barron Counties, communicating between the task force on the ground and local officials.
Schmitz explained the importance of the National Guard assistance for local county operations.
“From a civilian standpoint, really what we’re doing is mitigating the effects of the storms in the future,” Schmitz said. “We’re restoring the ability of emergency services to support their populations. We’re clearing the roadways for emergency access. We’re making sure drainage can occur effectively, and preparing for when the snow comes. We’re working to prevent future damage to the roadways.”
Schmitz also explained that state active duty missions are an integral part of what it means to be a Wisconsin National Guard member.
“For us, as Soldiers and Airmen, this is what we’re here to do,” Schmitz said. “It’s a part of our overall mission: to support the state in whatever way we can, especially in emergency operations.”
Emil “Moe” Norby, highway commissioner and director of the Polk County Public Works Division, spoke about the professionalism of the Wisconsin Guard.
“The men and women of the National Guard are so professional in taking the county’s requests in hand and turning toward the mission and getting it done,” Norby said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Norby described the dire need for assistance in the aftermath of the storms and the impact the presence of the National Guard had on his community and his county highway crews.
“In the first few minutes after the storms people — municipal and private — were outside offering to help,” he said. “It was neighbors helping neighbors. We [Polk County highway crews] were out there with snow plows trying to clear what we could. I had workers with roofs missing who would run home, strap up a tarp, and get back to work.
“The National Guard relieved our county highway crews and allowed us to focus on other hot spots,” he continued. “It gave us more diversity of work to get the roads clear. Without their resources, it would have taken us a lot longer to clear the area. The Guard was instrumental in helping us, especially from the safety aspect. They made quick work of it. In the first couple of weeks 20,000 yards of debris were removed from the roads.”
2nd Lt. Brian Schrader, a civil engineer with the 128th Air Refueling Wing out of Milwaukee and officer-in-charge of a debris clearance team, estimated that his eight-man team of Airmen cleared approximately 200 dump-truck loads of debris over 15 miles of roadway.
“The impact isn’t just clearing roads, it’s providing a resource,” Schrader said. “We have tons of equipment we can use between the Air Force and the Army to clear these roads in an expedient time that brings the community back from seeing devastation to having at least passable roads and heading halfway back to normalcy.”
Schrader expressed how providing aid to fellow Wisconsinites affects his Airmen as well.
“Being able to use our training to come out here and support our state — it means a lot to us,” he said. “We live here. We live in all of these communities. So being able to come out and support them is incredibly meaningful.
“I have guys who’ve deployed six or seven times all over the world,” he added. “Each time we deploy overseas we’re helping other countries or doing work elsewhere, but to come out and actually help your own state — that has the biggest impact to us.”
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, met with the Soldiers and Airmen supporting the recovery efforts during a site visit Aug. 7. Dunbar emphasized the importance of the debris clearance operations for Wisconsin’s communities.
“Looking at the months ahead when there’s snow that needs to be removed from these roads — you are opening lines of transportation and communication,” he said. “This will affect people you don’t even know, who will drive through here months from now.”
“I want you to know how much I appreciate the work you’re doing,” Dunbar continued. “It’s awesome to have a joint force out here. This is not like a war zone in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s just as important, especially for the people of Wisconsin. I’m very proud of you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”