The article below was written by Johnny Yount. Photos were taken by Bob Martinez.
Times are changing in the wildfire business as quickly as the global weather. The annual National Guard and CAL FIRE training was conducted April 10 through 12 at the CAL FIRE Academy in Ione and Lake Pardee in Amador County. The Army National Guard has been in partnership with CAL FIRE for over five decades fighting fire with helicopters. The C 130 (MAFFS) provided by the Air National Guard at Channel Islands have been delivering retardant since the 1970’s. In an effort to protect the people and resources of California every branch of the military in California can provide aerial delivery of water or retardant. This is not unique to California, as many states have increasingly become involved in using state guard units to augment firefighting forces.
In the early 1990’s a plan called Spirit of Cooperation was put together by CAL FIRE to begin working much more closely with the State’s military helicopter units to benefit and provide a safer fire work environment for both CAL FIRE and the Military.
Meetings where held, issues identified, and a plan of action initiated with a mutual understanding of what would be required to enhance the capability of both the Guard and CAL FIRE simultaneously.
There were five components to the plan. One of the components identified was the addition of a military helicopter manager who would fly at all times with the helicopter and provide tactical and logistical support to the military air crew. This simple step, providing an air program qualified helicopter manager to be part of the flight crew, maximizes the capability of the helicopter to move around the State much like a fixed wing air tanker.
The training at the CAL FIRE Academy was a refresher for most in attendance. The majority of the students are CAL FIRE aerial fire fighters, air attack and helitack Captains. Each military manager represents years of air program understanding and airborne firefighting experience. Also involved in the program are aerial fire fighters from Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When a Guard helicopter is activated, a manager is assigned to a specific copter and crew. The Blackhawks have a crew of three military and one CAL FIRE military manager. The Chinooks have a crew of four military and one CAL FIRE manager. In addition to the airborne helicopter assets, Guard and CAL FIRE liaisons are assigned to the activation. Maintenance teams, fuel tenders and other military support staff are also assigned as needed to assure that the activation runs smoothly. As mentioned, the Guard helicopters move around the State more like a fixed wing air tanker than a helicopter. It would not be uncommon for a Guard helicopter to be working a fire on the Modoc National Forest (Alturas Airport), get released, head south to a new emerging fire on the Angeles National Forest, remain overnight in Bakersfield, and then be reassigned to a fire in Ventura County.
During transit the Guard helicopters are in contact with the three primary CAL FIRE Operation Centers at Sacramento, Riverside and Redding. New initial attack fires or change of assignment are common. This fire season the Guard facilities at Los Alamitos, Stockton and Mather will be providing as many as five Chinooks and five Blackhawks.
CAL FIRE will hold similar training with the United States Marine Corps and Navy.