NEWS | Nov. 18, 2016

South Carolina National Guard strengthens State Partnership Program while fighting wildfires

By Capt. Brian Hare South Carolina National Guard

PICKENS, SOUTH CAROLINA - As the South Carolina National Guard continued to support firefighting efforts in Pickens County, an experienced pilot and subject matter expert with the Colombian Air Force visited the Incident Command Center for a knowledge sharing engagement, Nov. 15, 2016.

Through the South Carolina National Guard's State Partnership Program with the Republic of Colombia, Colombian Air Force Col. Juan C. Rocha, 12th Air Force, Air Forces Southern liaison officer, visited the site just outside of Table Rock State Park in Pickens County.

Guided by U.S. Department of State foreign policy goals, the State Partnership Program is administered by the National Guard Bureau and supports theater commanders' security cooperation objectives. The program has been successfully building relationships around the globe for more than 20 years. More than 70 nations are now involved in SPP.

A South Carolina Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment and a crew of Soldiers from the 59th Aviation Troop Command out of McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, South Carolina, as well as a South Carolina Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook from Det. 1, Bravo Company, 2-238th General Support Aviation Battalion with Soldiers from Donaldson Field in Greenville, South Carolina, responded to a request for help from the South Carolina Forestry Commission to contain fires burning near the top of Pinnacle Mountain.

Accompanied by U.S. Army Col. Andrew Batten, South Carolina Army National Guard deputy state aviation officer, and U.S. Air Force Maj. Arthur "Chip" Barton, 12th Air Force, Rocha visited as personnel from the South Carolina Forestry Commission, Pickens County Emergency Services and partner agencies worked to support the firefighting efforts, while South Carolina Army National Guard helicopters could be seen in the distance making multiple runs with their Bambi Buckets along a smoke-filled mountainous backdrop.

A veteran flight instructor and operations pilot with more than 7,200 hours of total flight time in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, as well as experience with Bambi Bucket firefighting operations, Rocha rode along with the CH-47 Chinook crew during multiple runs as they airlifted and dumped thousands of gallons of water over the affected areas of Pinnacle Mountain.

"We saw that you have a great capacity to try to protect your natural resources," said Rocha. "Not only the forest and the rivers but also the people and their properties."

Rocha also received briefings from several members of the South Carolina Forestry Commission's Incident Management Team on the firefighting efforts, including data collection, resource tracking, sustainment, medical response procedures, search and rescue operations, plans and logistics, and firefighting and containment techniques, among others.

"It was great that we can share because we in the Air Force in Colombia have to do a lot of this work seasonally," he added. "We have a lot of fires and disasters we respond to. It was impressive and productive to witness and see first-hand the techniques that you use and the efforts of your personnel."

The South Carolina National Guard's partnership with the Republic of Colombia began in 2012. The partner nations conduct multiple engagements each year ranging in topics including law, disaster response and maintenance programs.

The South Carolina Army National Guard aviation Soldiers have been working since receiving the call for support Nov. 10 to assist South Carolina Forestry Commission firefighters on the ground with extinguishing the fires by providing helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets. To date, South Carolina National Guard helicopters have dropped more than 647,680 gallons of water to support the efforts to combat and contain the fires burning at Pinnacle Mountain.

National Guard units in other states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, have been assisting civilian fire-suppression efforts.