CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – Aviation Soldiers assigned to Kosovo Force’s Regional Command-East have been working hand in hand since arriving in the region to enhance their aerial firefighting capabilities. Their ability to successfully combat wildfires relies strongly on the crew chiefs, pilots, command staff and the Soldiers who perform maintenance on the helicopter buckets used to drop massive amounts of water to extinguish large fires.
Upon their arrival in Kosovo, the 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment of the Virginia National Guard implemented training to bring their aviation crews up to standard and certify anyone who has never used the helicopter bucket. Crews use local lakes for training, and even after Soldiers are certified, the aviation teams continue to train because a call to fight a fire can come in at any second.
“Before our pre-mobilization, we got word that there were helicopter buckets here in Kosovo and that KFOR 29 fought fires up in the western side of Kosovo during their rotation,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darrell Busquets, the battalion standardizations instructor pilot assigned to Bravo Company. “That prompted us to put our aviators through bucket qualifications. Once we got into Kosovo, we kept current on the water bucket operations. The training makes our crews more cohesive when we get called to do real-life operations.”
Kosovo is prone to wildfires due to farmers participating in agricultural burning to cultivate fields and clear stubble, weeds, and waste, for the continued production of crops. However, if these fires are not kept under control, they have the potential to turn into larger fires that threaten Kosovo villages and forest habitats.
First Lt. Caleb Baldwin, an aviation officer and acting commander of Bravo Company, received a call July 23 from the operations desk alerting him of a potential wildfire spreading into two towns in northeastern Mitrovica, Kosovo. The fire was also spreading north, where it could potentially take out a radio tower.
The call came in around 5:00 p.m., and Baldwin called his team to alert them to get ready and to standby. Soon after, they were approved to start the mission, so they spun up one helicopter to fight the fire and another to function as the command and control center during the operation. They were able to get everything staged, in the air, and to the location in less than two hours after the initial call.
“The first helicopter took off to go to the dip site to get water and we started circling overhead to give them better grid coordinates of where the actual fire was located,” Baldwin said. “Each one of the buckets was about 660 gallons of water. We kept sending the aircraft back to the (lake to get water) to fight the next fire that was moving up the mountain towards radio or cell phone antennas.”
The team had to navigate through ashes in the air as they found their way to the site of the large fire. The initial water point selected was too far from the fire, which would only allow them to disperse a few water buckets before sundown. The team quickly changed location for a new water point that was closer to the fire. This allowed the crew to successfully drop water from seven helicopter buckets from the air to diffuse the fire, saving villages and limiting severe damage, and in the end, surpassing over 4,400 gallons of water for the entire operation.
“You could feel the heat when we got there, and there were some ashes from the burning underbrush,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Pettway, a UH-60 Helicopter Repairer assigned to Bravo Company. “They were going into the rotor disc, so you can see the trails from the rotor disk spinning in the smoke when flying.”
The team successfully extinguished 80% of the fire, leaving the remaining 20% to die out overnight. However, the crew was prepared to deploy the following morning if the fire did not entirely extinguish.
“This region is very mountainous and it’s very difficult to fight fires that are running up the sides of mountains due to it being inaccessible,” Baldwin said. “There are not a lot of roadways that go up there. The villages throughout the coastal area are very spread out and you might find them on the side of a mountain. The wildfires spread quickly and without support from the air, most of those homes there would most likely be destroyed and that is why I think it’s important for us to get out there and support them.”