ARLINGTON, Va. – The peak Hermit Fire in New Mexico is now the largest blaze in state history, burning more than 310,000 acres and prompting the governor to activate nearly 180 members of the New Mexico National Guard.
The New Mexico Guard isn’t alone in battling the 2022 wildfires ahead of the June start of the traditional wildfire season. Other states have already responded to fires that have scorched more than 570,000 acres across the country this year.
Supporting state and local authorities in firefighting is almost a never-ending mission for some Guard units, said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. The men and women of the National Guard participate in ground operations and rotary and fixed wing aircraft dropping water and fire retardants on wildfires.
“The National Guard is now involved in firefighting nearly year-round,” Hokanson said. “That’s why it’s important that our Soldiers and Airmen remain prepared for short-notice events such as wildfires, extreme weather or other emergencies.”
In early January, more than 25 members of the Texas Army National Guard supported local authorities in fighting fires in the Bastrop area. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Penrose and his team had to act quickly.
“We received a call around 3 a.m. [got] on the station around 4 a.m. and spent about an hour fighting the fires with local agencies there,” said Penrose, crew chief of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the 36th Aviation Brigade of Texas Army Guard combat.
Penrose and other crew members used collapsible buckets to deliver and drop water from the air.
Texas Army Guard members performed 42 bucket drops to help put out fires in the area over four days.
In March, a unit training assembly weekend for a Florida National Guard aircrew turned into a full-fledged operation when the Florida Division of Emergency Management requested help to fight against forest fires in the Chipola complex.
For Army 1st Lt. Isaiah Carlton, pilot and commander of Florida Army Guard Company B, 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment, supporting wildfire response in a CH-47 helicopter Chinook was a first.
“We’re training for it and staying ready to react, but this is the first time I’ve had to put it into practice,” Carlton said. “It is extremely gratifying to know that you come to help people [and] see the people affected by our efforts.
In addition to the pilots, the Florida Army Guard activated over 20 soldiers, two Black Hawks and two Chinooks. Florida Army Guard helicopters flew 20 missions in one week, dropping 156,500 gallons of water to help put out the fires.
In mid-April, the Nebraska National Guard activated 38 Airmen and Soldiers to help combat the 739 Fire in the south central state.
A drought coupled with high winds created dangerous road conditions.
“This fire made several 180-degree direction changes, multiple times a day,” said Army Capt. Joshua Miller, commander of the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 755th Firefighting Team. (Headquarter). “Driving towards the fire was also dangerous. On the road, it would go from good visibility to almost zero visibility with a gust of wind and smoke causing a drop in voltage.
In late April, the Guard activated 32 more members for another wildfire raging in southwestern Nebraska.
Record fires in New Mexico have required New Mexico Army National Guard ground transportation companies to prepare and deliver non-potable water to wildfire sites and water in bottle to responders and evacuees. Guard members from other units helped evacuate people in the affected areas. They also provided medical aids and wellness checks to civilian responders and volunteers.
The New Mexico Guard also used aerial assets to support authorities — something pilots and crew members were training for just as the wildfires spread rapidly in mid-April.
A fire that broke out near one location made it clear they would put their training to use immediately, said Army Capt. Dustin Offret, a pilot with New Mexico Army Guard G Company. , 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment.
“It opened our eyes to how bad fire season could be,” he said, adding that the urgency of the situation motivated “our crews to make the most of the training and get on their feet. at work”.
Offret said dropping water on ground targets of varying sizes and locations is a collaborative effort.
“Performing flight duties in hot temperatures and at high altitudes requires hours of training to become proficient,” he said. “These types of missions with Bambi buckets require the skills of the entire flight crew to be successful.”
Most of the firefighting New Mexico Guard members had recently returned home after completing a deployment in the Middle East.
Army Sergeant. Bradley Foley, a flight medic in the same unit as Offret, said moving from a war environment to a home environment was exciting and rewarding.
“Being able to complete our medical evacuation duties in the Middle East and then return home and serve the people of our state has been a bit surreal,” he said. “To drop buckets of water on the flames to help ground crews get the job done is amazing.”
In Idaho, three Air National Guard airlift wings recently converged at Gowen Field for an airborne firefighting exercise with federal and state partners.
Units were training in the use of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, a fire-retardant system that rides on the back of a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
Chief Staff Sgt. Cameron Pieters, a flight engineer with the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing, said spring training was an opportunity to ‘knock down the cobwebs’ two years into the fire season the most devastating in the country.
“Coming here is really about honing those skills, giving us lots of opportunities to fly and airdrop in a controlled environment,” he said.
Pieters added that the training helps crew members understand the unpredictable nature of wildfires.
“When we tackle a real fire, we never know what we’re going to get,” he said. “So this is an opportunity for us to maybe make some mistakes and figure out what we need to focus on for the year.”
Pieters said spring training is all about getting to a solid operational tempo when crews go on missions.
“Some of the normal habits we have when we fly are going out the window and we have to do different things,” he said. “So in preparing for MAFFS [operations]it’s just about having a good frame of mind and communicating with the other crew members, to make sure we have a safe flight.