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California Guard ordered to battle wildfires on the ground; Air Guard firefighting C-130s continue to make drops

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Greg Rudl
  • National Guard Bureau
About 200 California National Guard members were ordered by their governor on Tuesday to provide direct ground support to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) as it tries to extinguish wildfires in the northern part of the state.

"I can't say enough about the brave men and women working tirelessly, and with little rest, to battle the blazes across California," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I am announcing a big shot in the arm to their efforts by ordering California National Guard Soldiers to provide direct ground support on the fires."

Brig. Gen. Kevin Ellsworth, director of the Joint Staff of the California National Guard, told the Los Angeles Times that troops from as far south as Santa Barbara will be trained for five days in the forests of Mendocino County and then deployed for three to four weeks to help douse the fires.

In addition to the troops, the California National Guard will provide transportation and command and control personnel in coordination with CAL FIRE and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, the governor's office said.

There are already more than 500 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen from several states assisting 19,000 civilian firefighters in the state, according to the National Guard Bureau. Together, they are trying to suppress 1,459 wildfires that have burned 423,244 acres, NGB officials said Tuesday. The fires were caused by lightning strikes from thunderstorms June 21.

Guard troops have been deployed for more than a week flying planes and helicopters that have dropped almost a million gallons of fire retardant. On the ground, they've operated heavy equipment like bulldozers to build fire lines.

Eight Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) C-130 Hercules aircraft are flying sorties out of McClellan Airpark air tanker base, Sacramento, Calif., and as of Monday have made 90 drops of flame retardant.

The aircraft and about 100 personnel are commanded by Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Brown from the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing. He said that flying was curtailed in the first few days because wildfire smoke created an inversion layer at the airport that made flying too hazardous.

Aircraft are being provided by the ANG's 145th Airlift Wing from Charlotte, N.C., the 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo. and the Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing from Colorado Springs, Colo.

Brown took command Tuesday from fellow North Carolina Guardsman Lt. Col. Roger Williams of the 145th AW. Brown said that the days are long and the flying can be tricky as crews maneuver birds through remote valleys.

"They're flying low to the ground--heavy and slow--when they do their drops," he said, adding, "it's a job where the guys get a lot of satisfaction because they're helping to put out the fires."

He said the aircraft fly nonstop during daylight hours. Once crews drop a load of retardant they land and are immediately refilled in what's called the "pits."

"It's like a race car coming into the pits during a race," said Brown, describing how the C-130s fill up on flame retardant and pressurized air. "We train those guys to get in and out of the pits as fast as possible," he said.

Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Smith, a loadmaster on a MAFFS-equipped C-130 working at McClellen, said that the retardant can be pumped into the aircraft in only 15 minutes. The 145th AW member said, once airborne, he will adjust the tank pressure to tailor the retardant drop to a specific-sized area on the ground which is communicated through the cockpit. The aircraft can drop 3,000 gallons of orange-colored retardant mixture in eight to 10 seconds.

Brown credits California ANG's 162nd Combat Communications Group for providing communications at McClellen. "They jumped in full force to help set up the base," he said.

Brown was optimistic that the fires could be contained. "With the weather lifting and if we don't have anymore of those dry lightning strikes, we'll get control of it--it's just a matter of time." But he cautioned that many of the hundreds of fires in the state are not being worked.

Along aerial firefighting, the National Guard is providing two mobile communications and data platforms to assist with command and control in remote areas. The Guard also has deployed three Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks that refuel other trucks.

Two Nevada National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters have been dispatched to northern California to help fight the myriad of wildfires burning in the Redding area.

The Washington National Guard sent a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and crew of five. The Chinook carries an external water bucket designed for aerial fire suppression missions. The helicopter can also be used to airlift personnel and outsized equipment.

Two Army Guard OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopters from Los Alamitos, Calif., are performing fire spotting missions out of Mather Air Field in Rancho Cordova. One RC-26B aircraft from the Mississippi National Guard is performing aerial reconnaissance missions.