ARLINGTON, Va. — Close to 1,000 National Guard members are on duty across five Western states assisting state and local officials with battling wildfires that to date have burned close to 750,000 acres. Guard members in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana have been providing aviation support, working as hand crews responsible for creating firebreaks and providing communications and other logistical support requirements.
For Soldiers of the California Army Guard, that support also included engineer assets from the 132nd Multi-role Bridge Company who erected a floating bridge across the Cache Creek in Northern California so wildland firefighters could reach the Rocky Fire, one of the Golden State’s largest wildfires this year.
“The main thing is quickness,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, a military liaison with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “This bridge gives us faster access to the fire. We can get our bulldozers, equipment and people up there to fight it.”
The California wildfires also marked the first call up this year of aircrews from the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing and the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing. Both units fly C-130 Hercules aircraft fitted with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, which allows crews to dump 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant over a quarter-mile area in seconds.
“We are able to provide surge capabilities that not only help the almost-depleted civilian air tankers, but hopefully provide other crews some reprieve,” said Air Force Col. Scott Sanders, commander of the MAFFS Air Expeditionary Group.
Both units have been operating out of McClellan Air Tanker Base, California, and have been flying fire suppression missions throughout the region dropping roughly 31,000 gallons of water or retardant on the fires, according to officials with the National Guard Bureau. MAFFS aircrews, including those from other MAFFS units, have dropped a total of close to 400,000 gallons so far this season.
California Army National Guard units flying UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters have also been providing aerial fire suppression support, bringing the total amount of water and fire retardant dropped in California to nearly 800,000 gallons, according to the National Guard Command Center in Arlington, Virginia. Meanwhile, Oregon Air and Army Guard aircrews have dropped more than 250,000 gallons of water and fire retardant on wildfires burning in central and eastern Oregon.
Guard members in other states were called out earlier this year to fight wildfires as well, giving an early start to “wildfire season.”
In early May, Massachusetts Army Guard aircrews assisted local fire officials in fighting a wildfire in Clarksburg State Forest, Massachusetts, and New York Army Guard aircrews used Black Hawk helicopters to help douse a wildfire in New York’s Shawangunk Ridge State Forest. That fire burned more than 2,200 acres, said New York National Guard officials, adding that aircrews dropped nearly 40,000 gallons of water on the flames.
“I’ve been deployed twice and for me, this (mission) is definitely the better of the two,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Louis Malizia, from the New York Army Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment, who responded to the wildfire. “Our federal mission is important for the country, but this here makes a real difference in people’s lives right at home.”
The month of June saw aircrews from the Alaska Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment assist with battling the Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska. Aircrews used Black Hawk helicopters to drop more than 66,000 gallons of water on the fire, which burned close to 8,000 acres, destroying multiple structures and buildings, said Alaska National Guard officials.
Earlier this month aircrews from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard assisted the territory’s fire department and emergency management agency in snuffing out wildfires that burned more than 1,000 acres over three days, including both rural and neighborhood areas. The wildfires in Puerto Rico came at time when the territory was struck by severe drought conditions.
Guard members continue to train and stand ready if needed to assist with other wildfires, including those from the Washington National Guard, who battled numerous wildfires last year in what was one of the worst wildfire seasons in that state.
“We’ve been expecting another devastating wildfire season and have had our personnel and equipment ready so we can get them out the door the moment we’re asked for help,” said Army Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general of the Washington National Guard. “We’ve trained extensively for these types of missions and will continue to provide support for as long as needed and requested.”