A wildfire ignited mines laid by the Cuban military decades ago and jumped the fence line at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay on Thursday, threatening buildings and forcing evacuations of six neighborhoods for much of the day.
No one was injured, base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley said. In a rare instance of U.S.-Cuban collaboration, a Cuban helicopter flew over the fence line to the U.S.-controlled base and dumped water on some of the fire. Cuban security forces also “provided personnel and some trucks,” Ripley said, “so that was very, very helpful.”
She said the assistance was provided under an agreement for “mutual support that we have during natural or manmade disasters.”
Throughout the day, base firetrucks rushed up and down Sherman Avenue, the base’s main street, with sirens wailing. Navy and Air Force engineers as well as base public works crews widened roads and built “fire breaks” to prevent flames from crossing into neighborhoods, and Navy C-12 aircraft flew overhead scouting the scene.
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By 8 p.m., the base commander, Navy Capt. Dave Culpepper, assured residents over Radio Gitmo that, after collaboration with Cuban counterparts across the 17.4-mile fence line, the fire was “contained on all fronts.”
Navy firefighters were on the job into the night “working those hotspots and making sure we don’t have any reflash,” he said. But Culpepper declared the situation safe enough to let evacuated troops and families return home, in one instance after power workers restored electricity to the Tierra Kay townhouses on the road to the Detention Center Zone.
Flights were expected to arrive as normal on the base Friday and Saturday, he said.
Earlier in the day, base security officials shut down the road leading to the Detention Center Zone, cutting off the main part of the outpost from the base within the base where the Pentagon holds 41 war-on-terror detainees.
“You can’t see the fire, but you can see a lot of smoke,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Denny LeBoeuf said by telephone soon after arriving on the base Thursday. She wondered whether the remote base, which plans extensively for Caribbean hurricanes, also had a way to evacuate war-on-terror detainees from their secret maximum-security prison.
Ripley said the fires started Wednesday and “came over from the Cuba side. It was originally under control and contained.” But shifting winds Thursday strengthened the fire, forcing evacuations of hundreds of people from six base housing areas where some of the 5,500 people on the base live in suburban-style housing.
In an afternoon broadcast Culpepper told residents who had been awaken by explosions in the night Wednesday that it was “a bunch of ordnance going off” — mines exploding from the fire and heat on the Cuba side of the fence.
An announcement on the base’s Facebook page listed the evacuation zones as the Caribbean Circle, Kittery Beach, Nob Hill, Tierra Key, West Iguana and Villamar housing areas. Nob Hill housing is on the road to the abandoned Camp X-Ray prison; Tierra Key is on the way to the current Detention Center Zone.
Residents of those six housing areas were advised to take shelter in either the base gym or the ballroom of the Windjammer restaurant complex. Parents were alerted at 3:30 p.m. to pick up their children from an after-school program. A shelter was also opened for people to bring their household pets before heading to the gym or ballroom evacuation sites.
But the all-clear came at 8 p.m.
The prison spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, known as the JTF, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the fires — which shut down a medical clinic for U.S. troops assigned to the 1,700 troops and civilians assigned to staff the prison. The prison staff’s Twitter account, however, posted advice for pregnant women “over 35 weeks showing any symptoms” to report to the Navy base hospital “for treatment.”
“One of the things that occurred to me is, evacuating a high-security prison in the event of a hurricane is one thing,” said LeBoeuf, an attorney for the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Khalid Sheik Mohammed. “Evacuating people for a wildfire is really something else. And I wonder if JTF has a plan to evacuate Camp 7 and the other camps of imprisoned, locked down men in a hurry.”
The emergency occurred four days ahead of a planned session of the military commissions in the 9/11 mass murder case. War court staff were advised at 2:48 p.m. that, as of that point, the war court compound called Camp Justice, and far from the prison zone, was not threatened by the wildfires.