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NEWS | Oct. 1, 2020

West Virginia Guard aircrew helps fight California fires

By Edwin Wriston West Virginia National Guard

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Four members of the West Virginia National Guard’s Company C, 1-150th Assault Battalion, are flying aerial wildland firefighting missions to help combat massive northern California fires.

Maj. Evan Dale, Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Kearns, Staff Sgt. Ed Dillon, and Spc. Jack DeAngelo deployed to the region in September and will remain through at least Oct. 15. They are assisting local and federal officials trying to contain and extinguish the North Complex Fire, which has burned more than 300,000 acres. The crew has also recently helped fight the August Complex Fire, which has consumed more than 949,000 acres.

Dozens of large-scale fires, many caused by lightning and fed by hot, dry and windy conditions, continue to burn in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.

“Our mission here is to assist ground crews by conducting precise water drops on target from our helicopters in order to protect and save lives and property,” said Dale. “We are flying California National Guard MH-60M Black Hawks, the exact models we have back home, and utilize what are called ‘Bambi Buckets,’ which can accurately drop up to 660 gallons of water on designated and targeted fire lines per run.”

The collapsible buckets are designed for aerial firefighting. They hang about 30 feet below the helicopter, allowing pilots to hover over a water source – such as a lake, river or pond – and lower the bucket into the water to refill it. This allows the crew to operate in remote locations without the need to return to a permanent operating base, thereby reducing the time between drops. Once in position, the crew releases the water from the bucket to extinguish or suppress the fire below.

“We typically try to position the bucket around 30 feet above the tree line before releasing our water for maximum precision and effect,” said Dillon. “That means putting the helicopter just 60 feet or so above the tree line and often flames. Getting that close to the fire brings a number of safety concerns – from smoke reducing our flight visibility, to the heat from the fire hurting the flight crew or damaging our equipment, to windy hot air making it hard to hover or even causing an engine to stall out.

“Each run brings new and unique concerns and dangers that we encounter, so we are constantly focused on completing each mission and returning to base and eventually home safely,” he added.

Additional dangers the crew faces are multiple other aircraft operating in close proximity of their airspace, increased radio communications traffic from both ground and other aerial responders, and the mountainous terrain of the region.

The mere size and scope of the fire is unlike anything the crew members have ever witnessed.

“The very first flight we made, we came around the corner to our drop point, and in front of us the whole mountainside was on fire,” said Dillon. “Fifty-foot-high flames everywhere dancing and licking the sky. It was amazing to see – the striking beauty of it mixed with the pure destructive forces. It is truly hard to wrap your head around it.”

The WVNG flight crew works with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the official state fire response agency.

“We are proud to be here helping our counterparts in California and super proud of all those in the air and on the ground fighting this overwhelming force of nature,” said Dale. “Just last year, we conducted Bambi Bucket training at Camp Dawson to prepare for this exact type of mission. Now we are putting that training to practical use. The real-world experience we are gaining here will be invaluable should we ever be faced with large wildfires in West Virginia and need to respond at home.”

The North Complex Fire has destroyed more than 2,300 structures, including homes and commercial buildings, damaged over 100 more, and has resulted in 15 deaths. It has been ranked the fifth deadliest fire in modern Californian history, fifth in size, and sixth most destructive.

The August Complex Fire, while more than triple the size of the North Complex Fire, is in more remote areas. No deaths have been confirmed, but it has destroyed 51 structures.

More than 1,400 people, including ground and aerial firefighters, are assigned to combat the North Complex blaze, with an additional 1,600 assigned to the August Complex Fire.