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Military helps fight fires while personnel evacuated

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  • NEW: Fires at Camp Pendleton cause evacuation of 3,000 marines
  • Military lending direct and indirect assistance to firefighting efforts
  • As firefighting efforts go on, base officials poised to evacuate
  • Navy and Marine Corps have more than 20 facilities in San Diego area
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(CNN) -- Dozens of Defense Department personnel are actively engaged in fighting the wildfires raging in Southern California, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, and thousands more National Guard and active-duty military personnel are available to help.

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The Rice fire, east of Camp Pendleton, caused the evacuation of the Fallbrook community.

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said that 12 Defense Department firefighting teams, with 12 engines, are already working the blazes and more than 17,000 National Guardsmen are potentially available if needed.

In addition, he said, 550 Marines from Camp Pendleton are preparing to deploy to the fire area.

"All of the aid that we provide is the result of a request ... from the state," McHale said. "However, we have been very proactive in independently preparing those capabilities for the possibility of such requests, and we have reached out early to state officials."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already called up 1,500 National Guard troops, including more than 200 taken from border duty to help with supplies and security at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium and DelMar Fairgrounds and Racetrack, where thousands of evacuated residents are taking shelter.

Schwarzenegger also requested and received from the federal government six "modular airborne fire fighting systems" units -- which are C-130s that drop water and fire suppressant on the blazes. Video Watch California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talk about the crisis »

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The Pentagon provided 11 helicopters equipped with water buckets to fight the fires, McHale said. Aerial attacks on the fires, however, have been minimal because of high Santa Ana winds with gusts approaching 70 mph.

In an effort to make room for more civilians who have had to evacuate their homes, sailors stationed in Southern California are abandoning their barracks.

"Orders have been given to all sailors ashore in barracks to move to shipboard billeting to provide room for evacuees," said a Tuesday statement released by the U.S. military.

Only essential personnel are requested to report to duty at Naval Base San Diego, Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, and Naval Air Station in El Centro.

Those bases have also set up cots and tents for evacuees.

Also, the Navy has offered an Aegis cruiser, a guided missile destroyer, and two fast frigates to support evacuation efforts.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon designated March Air Reserve Base as the primary staging area for medical and relief supplies coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, McHale said.

And some 100 California National Guard medical personnel are helping alleviate "critical staffing shortfalls" at the San Diego Veterans Center, whose hospital staff are under voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders.

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The fires are also having a direct effect on military personnel -- McHale said 1,400 Navy personnel and their families have been forced to evacuate, and Camp Pendleton ordered 3,000 Marines to evacuate because of the fire, the Pentagon announced Tuesday evening.

In all, the military has about Video 20 facilities around the San Diego area. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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