Wildfires threatened Guantánamo Navy base. Cuba’s Frontier Brigade came to the rescue.

David Rose, a Pentagon employee, is the fire chief of Guantánamo Bay Navy base. He stands in a scorched former minefield along Sherman Avenue on Feb. 27, 2018, days after some of his 90 firefighters extinguished wildfires that jumped the fence line and threatened base housing.
David Rose, a Pentagon employee, is the fire chief of Guantánamo Bay Navy base. He stands in a scorched former minefield along Sherman Avenue on Feb. 27, 2018, days after some of his 90 firefighters extinguished wildfires that jumped the fence line and threatened base housing.

In an unprecedented collaboration between the armed forces of the U.S. and Cuba, the commander of Cuba’s Eastern Frontier Brigade dispatched three firetrucks and a helicopter onto this outpost to help extinguish wildfires that threatened U.S. Navy base housing.

The fires began on the Cuban side of the fence and had burned for more than a day before Navy Capt. Dave Culpepper requested the disaster assistance from his counterpart across the minefield.

Then for two hours Thursday, a Soviet-designed helicopter with a 500-gallon bucket dangling beneath it made four passes over the 45-square-mile base, scooping water out of the U.S.-controlled portion of Guantánamo Bay — and dumping it onto the wildfires.

At the same time, a Marine opened the Navy base’s rarely unlocked Northeast Gate for three firetrucks to come inside. Cuban military firefighters then fought the fire on a northern portion of the base and Pentagon-employed Jamaican and U.S. firefighters fought the same fire on the blaze’s southern side.

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, Guantánamo base commander Capt. Dave Culpepper briefed reporters about receiving help from the Cuban military to extinguish wildfires that jumped the Cuban minefield Feb. 21 and threatened base housing.

The unusual cooperation comes nearly three years after the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the Cuban government, ties the Trump administration has maintained while developing a harder line toward the Communist leadership more than 500 miles away in Havana.

“It worked great. I was pleasantly surprised both at their response time and at our ability to put it all together exactly as we trained,” Culpepper said in an interview Wednesday, describing the events of Feb. 21-22.

The skipper also emphasized that the unprecedented collaboration had nothing to do with politics between the United States and Cuba, which has been telling the U.S. Navy to get out of Guantánamo since the 1960s. Rather, he said, it was a natural result of years of training to respond to a shared disaster through military-to-military ties aimed at “maintaining the peace here.”

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Across those two days, the skipper said, more than 1,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines exploded in a Cuban minefield that separates the two sides — and could be heard by some of the estimated 5,500 residents of the base.

The U.S. Navy base side of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on March 19, 1999, during a landmine removal operation. The Cuban minefield remains across the fence line, and there were reports that mines may have exploded as a wildfire spread toward the base this week. EMILY MICHOT Miami Herald File

At one point Culpepper ordered families to evacuate from several neighborhoods nearest to the minefields, although more than a mile away. Lawyers for some of the 41 captives at the Pentagon’s war-on-terror prison, built on a bluff by the sea several miles from the minefield, said some detainees could smell the smoke. None were evacuated.

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The Cubans alerted the base to the wildfires on Feb. 21, Culpepper said. Base firefighters backed by Air Force engineers and Public Works teams using front-end loaders and bulldozers had it contained at first.

Then Thursday, winds kicked up to 20 or more knots, fueling the flames. “It burned pretty rapidly across one of our weapons ranges right towards two of our housing complexes,” Culpepper said. “Given the rapid nature of it, and my uncertainty if we could contain it on our own,” he said, he decided to “ask for assistance from the Cubans. They sent over three firetrucks and a command vehicle and also gave us a helicopter.”

Cuban military had come aboard the base before. Every year U.S. Navy and Cuban Frontier Brigade members conduct an exercise of joint humanitarian assistance — a “team-building exercise,” Culpepper called it — on how to provide mutual assistance after a major earthquake or hurricane.

The drill itself, Culpepper noted, had covered firefighting and triage. So, in the end, the disaster assistance provided by the Cubans mirrored the training exercise except, “this was the first time we used it for real.”

On the U.S. side, Fire Chief David Rose said about 84 of the base’s 90 firefighters were put on wildfire duty. Six were across the bay at the airstrip, where during the fires the base’s C-12, twin-engine turboprops flew over the smoke as spotters for the firefighters. The blaze was completely extinguished on Saturday, he said.

U.S. firefighters work to contain a wildfire at Guantánamo Navy base on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in an image released by the U.S. Navy.

At one point, fire reached Sherman Avenue, the base’s main street, north of housing areas and the abandoned 311-cell Camp X-Ray prison compound and south of the Northeast Gate where U.S. Marines stand guard in watchtowers. It consumed telephone poles and downed electrical lines, which could still be seen on the ground this week alongside the charred remains of a former U.S. minefield protected by barbed wire. It was decommissioned in 1999.

The Cuban military firefighters, who numbered about a dozen, four to a truck, “came on board with a lot of water” and were all business, Culpepper said, extinguishing blazes closest to the gate while U.S. firefighters maybe a mile away put out spot fires near the de-mined minefield.

The gate is rarely opened, sometimes just once a month for carefully scripted meetings between Culpepper and his Cuban counterpart to advise each other of coming activities. Those monthly fenceline meetings began in the 1990s to avoid misunderstandings. For example, every June the base commander reminds his Cuban counterpart that those will be fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July, not Marines shooting at them.