MATHER, Calif. – Two of the Army's newest helicopters worked their first wildfire missions recently as the California National Guard supported state agencies battling the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California.
A pair of UH-60M Black Hawk medium-lift helicopters from the California Army National Guard's 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, deployed Nov. 11 from Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, and headed north.
Poor visibility hampered aerial firefighting efforts early in the activation and kept most of the incident's aviation assets grounded, but after a couple days new opportunities opened up to attack the fire's northeastern edge.
Once there, the crews fought to keep the fire from crossing over containment lines in the Feather River Canyon. They also created a safety buffer to prevent the fire from burning toward hand crews cutting line below.
"We were keeping an area of the fire in check that had slopped over containment lines they had previously built with retardant," said Tim Rodriguez, a military helicopter manager with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), who embedded as part of the aircrew.
Rodriguez helped coordinate water drops in the canyon to assist ground crews who were attempting to cut fire lines, but were hampered by the advancing fire front. Overnight, spot fires and increased fire activity slowed their progress.
"During one of our missions, the plan was to start making drops near a hand crew's position and continue downhill to create a safe environment for them to work," Rodriguez said.
According to the Cal Guard's state aviation office, the two M-model helicopters combined to drop 109 buckets, or just over 70,000 gallons of water, on the fire as it burned through thick trees and mountainous terrain in Butte County. The M-models accounted for more than half of the Cal Guard's flight hours and bucket drops on the fire.
An older A+ model UH-60 and a CH-47 Chinook, from Cal Guard flight facilities in Fresno and Stockton, respectively, also flew water bucket missions over the fire, boosting the overall total to 192,206 gallons of water dropped by the four Cal Guard helicopters activated for the fire. The heavy-lift Chinook, which had fewer drops, released the largest single sum of water between the assets, thanks largely to its 2,000-gallon bucket.
CAL FIRE personnel touted changes to the M-model's radio system, which allow them to isolate audio feeds and keep their focus on fire-related radio channels to hear personnel in the air or on the ground.
"Having individual volumes in the back is a big plus for us," said Bob Innes, who, like Rodriguez, is a CAL FIRE military helicopter manager and embedded as part of the UH-60M aircrews.
"For some of the stuff they (the military crew) have to listen to, we can just turn it down a little bit and for the stuff we need to listen to we turn it up," he said. "If not, we may be trying to listen to someone on the ground and could miss critical radio traffic that could become a safety issue."
The addition of two multi-band radios to the cockpit is the most beneficial single feature of the M-model, according to U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Doug Martine, the helicopter's pilot in command.
"It really inhibited us beforehand being restricted to just one frequency when inside the area we're operating in for the fire," he said. "There's multiple frequencies going on so that's huge for us."
Rodriguez, who has flown about 170 hours working fires in the older UH-60L-model, also noted the M-model's increased power.
He described the aircraft as having "plenty of power" and said they were able to fill the aircraft's 660-gallon water bucket every time, rather than letting some water out to create a lighter load as he sometimes experienced in the L-model.
Martine noted that the two models carry the same buckets, but the M-model's rotor system is capable of lifting more.
"It's a more efficient rotor system particularly at the low airspeeds that we're operating at with regard to fire fighting operations," Martine said. "The engines are a little bit more unleashed, so we get to get some more torque and lifting out of it."
The M-models fly smoother than the older UH-60L models, said Martine, who ferried the unit's first M-model helicopter to Southern California after picking it up from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey where it received post-manufacture modifications required by the U.S. Army.
"It's a much smoother ride," he said. "You're not getting the shutter, so it doesn't wear on you as much throughout the day.
Upgraded avionics and glass cockpit instruments in the M-model create safer flying conditions, he added. The aircraft's updated flight management system includes a full 26-letter keyboard which allows the pilots to drop points on a map and label them faster and with more characters.
The aircraft's graphic displays for the time and fuel it will take to travel between points add to the crew's situational awareness.
"We can stay more focused on the fire and run some quick calculations to determine how much fuel we need to get back to a refuel location safely and get back out to the fire quickly," Martine said.
While none of the M-model's new features are monumentally different than its predecessor, Martine says the small upgrades throughout the aircraft add up.
"It's just a little bit better with everything and you really notice it at those times when you're task saturated," Martine said.
Though crews touted the new helicopter's increased performance and communications capabilities over the fire, it's not a perfect replacement for the L-Model, said Sgt. Anthony Orduno, one of the UH-60M crew chiefs who activated for the Camp Fire.
The L-model has a power supply in the rear cabin, he noted, which enables crews to use a power fill accessory on the water bucket to pick up from shallow water. The current configuration of the M-model precludes that, Orduno said, though Martine noted a solution to add the required power for the accessory is currently being worked on.
The unit has a dozen M-models now, and is slated to have 20 by early 2019 as they continue converting from the older L models, said Maj. Algernon Clay, who commands the California Army National Guard's Los Alamitos Army Aviation Support Facility where the aircraft are housed and locally operated from.
In December 2017, Rep. Ken Calvert announced the California Army National Guard would be receiving upgraded helicopters.
Calvert, who is vice-chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, cited the Cal Guard's high utilization rates for both federal and state missions as justification for the upgrades.
The 1-140th's UH-60L helicopters were actively fighting the Thomas Fire in Ventura County at the time the announcement was made. The Thomas Fire became the state's largest fire at 281,893 acres, but was surpassed by this summer's Mendocino Complex Fire during which a pair of fires roared to over 450,000 acres in a single geographic area.
Calvert saw the Camp Fire's devastation first-hand when he toured the area with President Donald Trump on Nov. 17.
"The California National Guard has been critical in emergency response to the fires across the state and the new M-model UH-60 Blackhawks (sic) have demonstrated that increased capability in the air means critical life-saving response on land," Calvert said in a statement.
Calvert reaffirmed his commitment to ensure the Cal Guard has what it needs for domestic disaster response missions.
"I will continue to work with the CA Guard to ensure our Guardsmen have the tools they need to respond, recover and rebuild in the wake of recent wildfires," he said.
The Camp Fire started in Butte County the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, and churned through 153,336 acres of urban land, vegetation, forest and nearly 14,000 residences on its way to becoming the deadliest fire in state history. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire, which killed at least 85 people. The Butte County Sheriff's Department lists three people as missing.
CAL FIRE reported the fire fully contained Nov. 25.