ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - With an uncertain wildfire season ahead, the Florida National Guard's aviation assets are preparing early for any fire suppression missions that might require helicopter support.
Soldiers from the Jacksonville-based 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment, trained recently with their helicopter fleet of UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks, and LUH-72 Lakotas in north-central Florida. In the event of wildfire outbreaks this year, the governor can activate the National Guard to help quench the flames with helicopters and specially designed, collapsible fire-fighting buckets.
On March 20-21, the Florida Soldiers hosted a group of aviators from the Rhode Island National Guard's 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, to train on wildfire suppression missions with Black Hawk helicopters. During the training at Cecil Commerce Center in Jacksonville, the Rhode Island pilots and crew learned the "ins and outs" of aerial firefighting from Florida experts.
Maj. Rich Marsolais, executive officer for the Rhode Island unit, explained that they are using the training as a chance to build relationships with the Florida National Guard and expand their own Defense Support to Civil
Authorities (DSCA) capabilities. He said his unit - based in Quonset Point, R.I. - traditionally supports storm response or flood recovery missions in New England, and they are looking to implement wildfire fighting into their skills sets.
"We are basically trying to start the program from scratch," Marsolais said.
The Florida and Rhode Island units worked together during deployments in Southwest Asia and already had a professional history, but this new firefighting training can also serve as a potential "surge capability" for the Florida National Guard in case a particularly harsh wildfire event.
"It gives us access to qualified and trained crews in case we need them," Chief Warrant Officer Ray Freeman, standardization officer for 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment, said in reference to the Guard's ability to utilize support from other states through an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC).
The Rhode Island aviators were also able to observe aerial firefighting in action on March 22, as the Florida
Army National Guard partnered with the Florida Forest Service for additional training southwest of Jacksonville at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. While the Forest Service and Camp Blanding officials managed controlled burns around the artillery impact area on post and at nearby Belmore State Forest, the helicopter crews practiced dousing the flames using 320-gallon and 2,000-gallon buckets of water hoisted from nearby lakes.
Florida Forest Service aircraft and ground crews were incorporated into military training to give "complete sense of communications and dynamics that happen during a wildfire," according to Aviation Manager for the Florida Forest Service Brian McKee.
As McKee monitored the exercise from Camp Blanding's Weinberg Drop Zone, the National Guard's Black Hawks and Chinooks carried the bright-orange water buckets full of fresh water from the lakes to the controlled burns. Overhead, the Guard's LUH-72 Lakota and Forest Service aircraft circled the area to spot flames and control the suppression efforts.
McKee called the training "a chance for the Florida Forest Service and the Florida National Guard to work together with their aircraft and improve our ability to work together in the fire incident management world."
He said the two agencies already have a long history of working together during wildfires in Florida, and this practice for the 2014 fire season was a continuation of that partnership.
"The Florida National Guard is an important part of our surge capacity when we exceed our forces in the Florida Forest Service," McKee added.
According to Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website, the potential outlook for the 2014 wildfire season is uncertain. The website states a "conservative, if uncertain, outlook" points to low wildfire danger early in the year "increasing to normal fire activity."