Wyo. Guard bags sand to bolster river’s banks

Maj. Tom Blackburn, Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Wyoming Military Department

SARATOGA, Wyo. – The North Platte River is rising in Saratoga, Wyoming, the dark brown water creeping up to the edges of the banks, looking for a way to spill over.

A task force of various government agency members arrived Wednesday and Thursday to help local officials prevent those waters from finding a way into town.

Making up a portion of that task force are members of the Wyoming National Guard.

Forty-four soldiers and airmen were activated by Gov. Matt Mead Thursday to help local authorities and community members place sandbags along the North Platte as preventative measures as part of a rapid action team. With warm weekend weather expected to cause extensive snowmelt, and the area already saturated with fresh rain over the past couple weeks, the Guard was brought in to help deter flooding at critical locations. It is a mission that requires planning and anticipation to ensure the community is safe.

“In 2014, we came out here, but it was more urgent, more expedient,” said Master Sgt. James Burghard, from the 84th Civil Support Team, in Cheyenne. “But this is a learning process. We built relationships in 2014, and now we’ve been asked to come out and work with the community, work together to solve the problem before it gets bad.”

This is already the second state activation for the Wyoming National Guard for flood response this year. Earlier this month, troops were brought in to help in Lander and Hudson after increased rainfall and snowmelt caused flooding in that area. In Saratoga, guard teams have assisted previously in 2014 and 2011.

Burghard has become experienced in flooding. He was part of an initial assessment team in Lander, and was in Lusk last year and Saratoga in 2014. Those lessons learned have helped the rapid action teams in Saratoga.

“High water is expected Sunday, so we sent survey crews out to mark sandbag lines, height and distance. We learned in 2014 it makes a difference, makes the sandbagging go faster.”

Some members of the RAT are experiencing the floods for the first time, including each RAT leader.

Right in the middle of annual training, 2nd Lt. Ethan Valiquette was trying to stay busy and observe his new infantry platoon training at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center. The call came for a RAT leader and he got the opportunity to do his first state active duty mission.

“I’m fortunate to have the chance to do this, help our community and be a part of this,” the young officer said. His team is made up of soldiers from various units, including the 133rd Engineer Company, 1041st Mutli-role Bridge Company and the 67th Army Band.

“I didn’t even know all of these guys when we first got here,” he said. But now, he is helping other soldiers fill sandbags by Saratoga’s 1st Street bridge.

On the other side of town, Capt. Klint Holscher of the Wyoming Air National Guard, was tossing deteriorated sandbags into garbage cans, sorting broken bags from viable ones in a sandbag graveyard. His team was busy loading more bags to send down to staging points in town. Once done there, the Air Guard members were going to split up and protect critical infrastructure points in the town with sandbags.

“We staged quite a few bags here, and filled 2,700 today, and probably 3,000 yesterday,” he said. His team arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday and quickly got to work. “This is my first flood, but some of these folks have been here before and have very good experience to rely on,” he said, waving at the dozen Air Guard airmen working through multiple piles of dry sand.

“This is a rewarding experience,” Holscher continued. “We train for this. You always want to help Wyoming’s community in their backyard. We’ve had plenty of folks come out to say hi and help. It makes you feel good.”

Back along the North Platte, by the Deer Haven Trailer Park, Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Hauf walked atop a high river bank. He is with Valiquette’s RAT, and they have been going since 5 a.m.

“We’re working the high-priority areas right now, being as preventative as possible,” he said, looking out over the swift-moving river. He is a member of the 84th CST, like Burghard. “We are going to protect the critical infrastructure here, all the way to the bridge,” he said. Behind him are row of homes, with some residents coming out to give thanks to the various soldiers lugging sandbags farther down the bank.

“I didn’t expect this,” Valiquette said, referencing his first flood mission and the reception from the local community. “But it’s worth it,” he added, as he watched another sandbag land on the bank to prevent the North Platte spilling into a grassy yard.

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