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Juggling fires and families: Calif. aviators make it work

By Senior Airman Crystal Housman | California National Guard | Nov. 14, 2018

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MATHER, Calif. – U.S. Army Sgt. Greg Fernandez stepped Monday into the hall of the Sacramento Army Aviation Support Facility to check on fires burning 400 miles away.

Fernandez, a UH-60M Black Hawk crew chief with the California Army National Guard's Alpha Company, 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, deployed Nov. 11 from Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, in Southern California, to support state agencies battling the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California.

It was two days after his daughter evacuated from her dorm room at California State University, Channel Islands, as the Woolsey Fire encroached upon the Camarillo campus. She tried to return to campus Monday, but another fire threatened the rail line she planned to take.

It's not the first time Fernandez has deployed to help contain a wildfire while his family was fleeing from another.

"It's a juggle," he said. "That’s the hardest thing."

In 2014, Fernandez was again battling fires in Northern California while his wife and four children evacuated from fires burning in San Diego. His wife, Jennifer, took their children to her parents' house and returned to the evacuation area to serve on her employer's emergency response team.

They've endured fires and overseas deployments in the eight years since Fernandez cross-trained to became an aviator, but they make it work.

"I don’t care who you are or what you do, it’s the loved ones at home keeping the home front going, that’s the hardest thing," he said.

"All I have to say is, ‘hey,’ and she’ll try and make it work. I have two in high school now, and she’ll make sure they get to school. Even when I was deployed in Iraq, for car problems, house problems or dog problems, she made it all work," he said. "I can never ever thank her enough."

As he headed out the door Sunday morning, Fernandez said Jennifer again echoed her support and understanding for another activation even as it meant he would miss their oldest child’s 21st birthday this week.

"I was getting in my car and my wife says, ‘you know you love this,’" he said.

She understands his passion for the call and the drive to help.

"What we do is special," Fernandez said. "Not everyone gets to do this. We get to go out to a multi-million dollar piece of equipment and do good things."

Fernandez estimates he was deployed to battle blazes for about two months this summer, but the mission and his crew make it worth it.

"I’m very privileged to work here with these guys and to do this," he said. 

"Doing fires is the most rewarding part of this gig, because I’m going to help get someone to go home tonight," Fernandez said, even as it means being away from home himself.

"Everyone deserves to get to go home."