California Army National Guard Assists Rocky Fire
California Army National Guard CH-47 Chinooks, UH-72 Lakotas and UH-60 Black Hawks are fighting fires in Northern California,
US Army, August 06, 2015 - MIDDLETOWN, Calif. by Staff Sgt Eddie Siguenza - As plumes of smoke rise above mountains in Yolo and Lake counties in Northern California, California Army National Guard Soldiers prepare CH-47 Chinooks, LUH-72 Lakotas and UH-60 Black Hawks for another round of flights.
On Aug. 1, a ground crew of fuelers stands by, ready to get these birds back into the air. Capt. Cynthia L. Jones, military liaison between the California National Guard and California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection (CAL FIRE), is busy coordinating 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment’s plan of attack.
This is nothing new. Wildfires are a common enemy of the California National Guard, and now attention is focused on the Rocky Fire in Northern California. The latest blaze is one of more than a dozen currently burning across the Golden State. The Rocky Fire started late July and has consumed more than 47,000 acres in less than a week.
“We’ve been working together with the military (California National Guard) for so long that things become routine,” said retired CAL FIRE battalion chief Scott Watson, a military helicopter liaison. “We’ve become a good team after so many years. It’s critical because not all fires are easy to fight, and no fire is considered routine.”
More California National Guard forces are on the way. More than 400 troops conducted CAL FIRE’s hand crew training and will be available for duty the first week of August. Two C-130J Hercules aircraft, equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS), were activated recently to fight the Rocky Fire as well as other wildfires.
“We are once again trained and ready to meet the challenge,” said Col. Davis Barkos, 146th Airlift Wing commander; the MAFFS belong to his unit.
The California National Guard’s actions follow Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s declaration of a state of emergency on July 31, as fires burned across California. Per CAL FIRE’s website, almost 4,000 fires have ravaged the state in the first seven months of 2015, consuming more than 29,000 acres. That’s more than 1,000 fires for the same time frame than last year.
“California’s severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” Brown stated.
Jones’ unit is situated at Middletown Helibase, near Clearlake, in Lake County, California. The site is 20 acres of flat ground that has been used previously as a helibase. Six California Guard “birds” stationed there are regularly prepped for fire action if not already in the fight. The birds share a field with other civilian Chinooks and helicopters contracted by CAL FIRE.
“We can have as many as two dozen aircraft here in one day, and as little as a dozen,” said Kyle Shorde, Middletown Helibase manager. “Having the California Guard around makes things very serious.”
As in previous blazes, the Hercules air tankers will serve as key firefighting assets. They fly out of McClellan Air Field in North Highlands, California, and are capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of retardant or water in less than five seconds covering one-quarter of a mile in that span.
California National Guard air assets dropped more than 1.2 million gallons of water and fire retardant on wildfires in 2014. In the Rocky Fire, Cal Guard aircraft have already dropped tens of thousands in the first few days, thanks to three designated “dip” sites around the fire.
“The key is to get into areas where we can’t deploy ground forces, where terrain is difficult, where we can’t fight,” Watson explained before boarding a Chinook. “Of course, we’re looking at critical areas that will destroy life and property. Those are our obvious concerns.”
Twenty-four residences and 26 outbuildings were destroyed in the Rocky Fire’s first five days. CAL FIRE declared it five percent contained at that time.
The 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County remains California’s largest wildfire, per CAL FIRE’s website. It consumed more than 270,000 acres, destroying nearly 3,000 structures. Fifteen people died.
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California National Guard US Army Aviation
CAL FIRE State of California