Fresno State Army ROTC in the hot zone

Jon Bosch, 10, sleeps behind the plaza level seats at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 22, after he and his family were evacuated from Poway.  Bosch was one of thousands of evacuees making a temporary home of the San Diego Chargers
Gary Friedman / Associated Press

While thousands of students are cramming for midterms and writing essays, eight Fresno State cadets have pushed their textbooks and Scantrons aside to complete a different assignment.

The cadets were called to aid in fire relief in Southern California’s wildfires, which have burned 516,648 acres and have killed 14 people.

Early last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked 1,500 National Guard troops to help with security efforts and the distribution of supplies at Qualcomm Stadium and the DelMar Fairgrounds and Racetrack in San Diego.

The eight cadets were called by their Army National Guard regiment, E Company 40th FSB, on Monday and arrived Tuesday morning to offer assistance to survivors. On Thursday, the cadets were at Qualcomm Stadium providing security assistance as well as distributing food and other goods to evacuees.

Ivan Torralva said in a phone interview Thursday that the stadium has housed a “pretty stable environment” for the evacuees, especially for families who may have lost their homes in the fires.

The Southern California wildfires mark the first time the Fresno State cadet has been asked to assist in an emergency situation. Torralva, a senior Spanish major, received the phone call on his way to a class last Monday.

“I was actually pretty shocked,” Torralva said of the call. But once his initial surprise wore off and the anticipation of aiding in a state emergency set in, he said his shock turned to excitement.

Torralva said Fresno State’s ROTC program has prepared him to take charge in an emergency such as this.

“The program teaches us a lot of leadership skills,” he said.

Lt. Col. Michael Busteed, chair of Fresno State’s military science department, said the cadet’s call to aid in fire relief is a prime example of the “engaged learning,” or hands-on approach, that Fresno State promotes.

T.J. Cooper, a cadet in the ROTC program, said the called cadets have strong interpersonal skills, which will help them in working with survivors.

The cadets are “used to going and going,” Cooper said.

Busteed said the cadets may be asked to stay anywhere from five to 10 days, but he’s hoping they will be gone for only five days. He also said cadets wouldn’t be called to assist in a situation that was expected to be a “long state emergency.”

Fresno State starting quarterback Tom Brandstater’s younger brother, Stanley, was also called up to aid in fire relief. His brother is part of the ROTC program at Fresno City College.

“I know he’s probably safe down there out of harm’s way,” Brandstater said after Friday’s game. “It’s his first real action he’s had to do.”

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as of Friday, 85 people have been injured in the wildfires. And as of Sunday, more than 1,800 homes have been destroyed. The number of uncontained fires has also dropped to nine.

Seth Hildebrand, a cadet who’s been in the ROTC program for three years, said in a phone interview Friday that they helped with relocating about 500 evacuees from Qualcomm Stadium to the DelMar Fairgrounds and Racetrack.

The stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers, hosted and won the football game against the Houston Texans Sunday afternoon.

Hildebrand said the cadets are expected to aid in fire relief until Friday, although their length of stay could change.

Hildebrand, a senior kinesiology major, said he’s “more than happy” to have the opportunity to serve his country and provide assistance for the displaced San Diego residents.

Although the call to aid in fire relief has come smack-dab in the middle of the semester, Hildebrand is more concerned with completing the Southern California fire relief assignment.

As for missing midterms — “That’s the least of my worries,” he said.

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