Apart from an occasional military convoy slowing traffic on Interstate 82 and the echo of explosives across the Valley, thousands of soldiers preparing for combat at the Army’s Yakima Training Center make for surprisingly quiet neighbors.

The military has been training in the sagebrush northeast of Yakima since the World War II era. But what exactly goes on out on the 500-square mile installation remains unclear to many locals, as few have ever ventured past the gates patrolled by armed guards, and military activities have sometimes been cloaked in secrecy.

The installation’s current commander, Lt. Col. Jason Evers, says he wants that to change.

“We’re trying to pull back the curtain a little bit and show folks what we do,” he said on a recent tour for officials from neighboring Selah. “It’s a shame that people have lived in Selah for 30 years and never been out here.”

While only about 100 service members are permanently stationed here, the training center is a satellite of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, JBLM, in Tacoma and is used, as its name implies, for large-scale training exercises by two Army brigades, Special Forces units, support units such as combat engineers, and the Air Force, as well as international forces from Canada and Japan.

The importance of the training center in helping troops from JBLM stay combat ready has grown in recent years because the base plays a key role in the military’s renewed focus on the Pacific Region, Evers said. In 2012, the Obama administration announced plans to increase the U.S. military presence and capability in the Pacific in an effort to “rebalance” the country’s global position.

“I want every commander out there to want to come here to conduct training,” Evers said. “The bottom line is to enhance readiness.”

Soldiers in sagebrush

The most valuable resource the installation offers is its remoteness.

At JBLM, “they just don’t have the room to train folks the way they need to train,” Evers said. “Out here, we’ve got a lot more freedom. There’s no public roads across the training center and we own our own airspace.”

But that remoteness also brings challenges.

The Yakima Training Center, known as YTC for short, operates like a mini-city, employing road engineers, accountants and police officers. But unlike larger military bases, it doesn’t offer housing, schools or shopping for service members stationed there.

The military relies on its relationship with the cities of Selah and Yakima for those services and support, said Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan White.

Helping soldiers and their families get settled when they move to the Yakima area is a big part of his job, because affordable family rentals can be hard to find, White said.

He also spends more time managing the military’s lands than its soldiers.

“When I came out here, I though my focus would be training, but it’s actually wildfire prevention and resource management,” White said.

The military has to take care of the training center’s landscape so that it can continue to provide the services it does, he said. Wildfires are the inevitable result of live fire and hot tank exhaust in the midst of tinder-dry sagebrush and grass, but dealing with those fires wastes valuable training time.

YTC’s small fire department deals with about 85 brush fires a year, said Deputy Fire Chief Chris Dykstra.

“Our job is to keep those fires small, limit the environmental damage and get them back to training,” he said.

Usually, the fires are put out quickly by firefighters who stand guard during high-risk exercises or are contained by strategic firebreaks.

But occasionally — like 2014’s Saddle Mountain fire — they get out of hand and firefighters have to call for backup.

Dykstra thanked the local fire districts in Yakima and Kittitas counties for coming to YTC’s aid when needed. He said in the past five years, they’ve needed help six times and returned the favor by helping local fire districts with their fires 262 times.

While that might seem out of balance, Dykstra said the man-hours on those six YTC fires actually outnumber all the local calls they responded to.

YTC employs about 350 civilians, 100 service members and 75 contractors. They run everything from high-tech battle simulations to a child care center, manage wastewater treatment and conduct wildlife surveys.

At first blush, it’s surprising that the military employs wildlife biologists, but as the owner of miles and miles of undeveloped lands, there’s an obligation to manage the resident wildlife, including mule deer and one of the state’s few populations of rare sage grouse.

A recent federal decision has kept the sage grouse off the endangered species list for now, but YTC will continue its program to protect the birds by scheduling training activities away from key areas during the spring breeding and nesting season, said wildlife program manager Colin Leingang.

And if you want to try your chance at seeing the wildlife, you can.

The armed guards at the gate might look like their job is to keep the public out, but YTC actually welcomes the public for outdoor recreation such as hunting, hiking, horseback riding, and the use of an archery range for anyone willing to submit to a background check, learn the rules and buy a $10 annual recreation pass.

YTC’s police chief, Bill Cantral, explained that hunters have to provide a license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration; present safety equipment; and register their weapon. Then, they are welcome to hunt in approved zones as long as no active training is planned for those areas that day.

Training time rising

Only two active-duty units are permanently stationed at the training center: an air ambulance detachment with about 40 personnel and an explosive ordnance detachment with about 50 personnel. Reserve and National Guard units also call the YTC home.

But the installation provided 473,478 training days in 2014; that’s an average of 1,200 soldiers a day developing their skills.

“We’re capable of supporting 3,000 personnel, but sometimes you won’t see anybody here,” Evers said, referring to the developed base with offices, bunk houses and dining halls just east of Selah. “Sometimes, they roll in and head straight to the field and live in tents; that’s also important to the training mission.”

The installation has 27 firing ranges and 20 training areas, all of which aim toward the interior, a closed area known as the Central Impact Area.

The firing ranges feature cardboard targets such as trucks with machine guns that can go 40 mph and machines that mimic the sound of gunfire or the experience of roadside explosives.

“These are not your typical shooting ranges,” said range officer George Holman. “We try to recreate all the conditions of combat short of actually being shot at.”

He added that they spend over $100,000 a year on cardboard targets, which are created from combat photos that commanders request.

There’s also a village for practicing urban assault techniques and a shoot house for live fire training in a hostage-type situation, which is also a popular resource for local law enforcement officers as well as military personnel.

It’s important for soldiers to experience working with live ammunition, but for safety’s sake there are also explosives experts stationed at YTC full time. The explosive ordnance detachment also serves as the primary bomb squad for about 85 counties in the Northwest, said Sgt. 1st Class Victor Fontan.

Over the past year, the bomb squad completed 77 missions, dealing with both military explosives at YTC and calls from communities, he said.

“Nine out of 10 times we can take it out with the robot or disrupt the device from a distance,” Fontan said.

The other permanent unit is the air ambulance detachment, which is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year to rescue anyone injured during training exercises. Because their helicopters have hoist capabilities — unlike most commercial copters — the soldiers are occasionally called to help with search and rescue missions around Central Washington as well.

The soldiers fly in teams of four — two pilots, a medic and a crew chief — and practice their skills in coordination with other units training at YTC.

“We need to train constantly to keep honing our skills,” said 1st Lt. Ikaika Jakub. “Just because you see a Black Hawk over town doesn’t mean we have medivacs that often.”

The detachment has been working hard to get up to speed on their new UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which replaced smaller, retiring Lakota helicopters last month. Jakub described landing the Black Hawks on the roof of Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center for the first time as “like landing on a dime” but added that he and others are excited about flying the more powerful, versatile aircraft.

New projects

The installation was known as the Yakima Firing Center for decades, but in the late 1980s after the most recent expansion, YTC changed its name to more accurately describe its mission.

Although the training center’s basic asset — open space — hasn’t changed, there are several new developments and projects in the works:

• A recently built training range for tanks is equipped with cameras so that every move the soldiers make is watched by their commanders. That way, they can offer more precise feedback on team coordination and communication instead of just whether the targets were hit.

• A new computer simulation training center is planned for the satellite surveillance center that the National Security Administration shut down in 2013, Evers said. While that will bring more units to YTC to train, it’s unlikely to bring permanent jobs, he added.

• The National Guard plans to spend $19 million to build new barracks, dining and storage facilities to support its use of YTC for its annual training.

• Funding for facility updates, such as larger hangars for the air ambulance helicopters and additional space for the fire department, has been requested but is waiting on congressional authorization. Currently, the air ambulance detachment is dealing with new Black Hawks, which don’t quite fit in the hangars designed for smaller aircraft.