National Guard Soldiers, Airmen Battle Wildfires
By Air Force Master Sgt. Greg Rudl
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 2, 2008 California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered about 200 National Guard members yesterday to provide direct ground support to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as it tries to put out wildfires in the northern part of the state.
A helicopter crew from the Army National Guard works with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to put out fires that have burned more than 400,000 acres. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Stuart Brown, California National Guard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I can't say enough about the brave men and women working tirelessly and with little rest to battle the blazes across California," Schwarzenegger said. "I am announcing a big shot in the arm to their efforts by ordering California National Guard soldiers to provide direct ground support on the fires."
Army Brig. Gen. Kevin G. Ellsworth, director of the Joint Staff of the California National Guard, told the Los Angeles Times that soldiers from as far south as Santa Barbara will be trained for five days in the forests of Mendocino County and then deployed for three to four weeks to help douse the fires.
In addition to the troops, the California National Guard will provide transportation and command and control personnel in coordination with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
More than 500 citizen-soldiers and -airmen from several states already are assisting 19,000 civilian firefighters in the state, trying to suppress 1,459 wildfires that have burned 423,244 acres, National Guard Bureau officials said yesterday. The fires were caused by lightning strikes from June 21 thunderstorms.
Guard troops have been deployed for more than a week flying planes and helicopters that have dropped almost a million gallons of fire retardant. On the ground, they’ve operated heavy equipment to build fire lines.
Eight Modular Airborne Firefighting System C-130 Hercules aircraft are flying out of McClellan Airpark air tanker base in California’s capital of Sacramento, and as of June 30 had made 90 drops of flame retardant.
The aircraft and about 100 personnel are commanded by Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Brown from the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing. He said that flying was curtailed in the first few days because wildfire smoke created an inversion layer at the airport that made flying too hazardous.
Aircraft are being provided by the ANG’s 145th Airlift Wing from Charlotte, N.C., 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo., and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing from Colorado Springs, Colo.
Brown took command yesterday from fellow North Carolina Air National Guardsman Lt. Col. Roger Williams of the 145th AW. Brown said the days are long and the flying can be tricky as crews maneuver birds through remote valleys.
"They're flying low to the ground –– heavy and slow — when they do their drops," he said. "It's a job where the guys get a lot of satisfaction, because they're helping to put out the fires."
He said the aircraft fly nonstop during daylight hours. Once crews drop a load of retardant, they land and are immediately refilled in what's called the "pits."
“It's like a race car coming into the pits during a race,” Brown explained, describing how the C-130s fill up on flame retardant and pressurized air. “We train those guys to get in and out of the pits as fast as possible."
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Smith, a loadmaster on a MAFFS-equipped C-130 working at McClellan, said the retardant can be pumped into the aircraft in only 15 minutes. Once airborne, the 145th AW member said, he will adjust the tank pressure to tailor the retardant drop to a specific area on the ground that’s communicated through the cockpit. The aircraft can drop 3,000 gallons of orange-colored retardant mixture in eight to 10 seconds.
Brown credits California ANG’s 162nd Combat Communications Group for providing communications at McClellan. "They jumped in full-force to help set up the base," he said.
Brown said he’s optimistic that the fires could be contained. "With the weather lifting, and if we don't have any more of those dry lightning strikes, we'll get control of it,” he said. “It's just a matter of time."
But he cautioned that many of the hundreds of fires in the state are not being worked.
The National Guard is providing two mobile communications and data platforms to assist with command and control in remote areas. The Guard also has deployed three trucks that refuel other trucks.
Two Nevada National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters have been dispatched to northern California to help fight the myriad of wildfires burning in the Redding area.
The Washington National Guard sent a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a crew of five. The Chinook carries an external water bucket designed for aerial fire suppression missions and also can be used to airlift personnel and large pieces of equipment.
Two Army Guard OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopters from Los Alamitos, Calif., are performing fire-spotting missions out of Mather Air Field in Rancho Cordova. One RC-26B aircraft from the Mississippi National Guard is performing aerial reconnaissance missions.
(Air Force Master Sgt. Greg Rudl serves with the National Guard Bureau. Compiled from various reports.)