HAYFORK, Calif. (Army News Service, July 29, 2008) -- California National Guard's "Task Force Pick" came to the rescue when the wildfires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest threatened the nation's tallest Ponderosa Pine tree.

Ponderosa Pines, plentiful in the forests of the western United States, have an average height of 180 feet and can live for 300 to 600 years.

When the team of about 20 Guard firefighters reached the pine's location, a few miles north of the Forest Glen campsite, they knew that this tree was something special.

Standing at 240.5 feet high (almost 24 stories) with a trunk nearly eight feet thick and estimated at an age of 700 years, this tree had to be saved. The significance of the tree was verified by the U.S Forest Service team member as being documented by the American Forests' National Register of Big Trees.

"It was a lot of hard work and heart that went into keeping this incredible tree safe," said Spc. Diana Diaz. "This majestic tree has witnessed a lot of history and stands as a symbol for survival. There have been wildfires through these forests before ... and this tree still stands. We're working hard to make sure that she makes it through this fire too."

That task wasn't easy. With low-hanging branches, the tree was immediately threatened by sparks and embers from nearby fires that could easily ignite the tree if the wind shifted just right.

The team of Guardsmen spent hours trimming these low-hanging threats and also cleared a wide area around the tree that would eliminate any fuel source on the ground.

Two Guard members spent the entire day cutting down neighboring trees, and the rest of the team stacked piles of wood that would burn a safe distance from the tree. They also set up a water sprinkler system that would keep the cleared area moist.

"Rescuing a tree that some might consider a national treasure has been one of the most unusual missions I've ever been on," said Spc. David Walker. "Being here in the Shasta-Trinity Forest with the other members of my unit has been a rough but rewarding mission. I'm proud to be here and I'm very proud of my fellow soldiers who are serving here with me."

The National Guard has been fighting wildfires in California now for more than a month. More than two dozen National Guard helicopters have dropped nearly 4 million gallons of water on fires that have been burning throughout the state since June 22.

The Louisiana National Guard has supported the fire operation in California with two Black Hawk helicopters and 10 crew members since July 13.

Two UH-60 Blackhawks from the Louisiana National Guard departed the Mather Flight Facility in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday to support Cal Fire operations in the Yosemite Valley near Midpines.

The fire, which grew from about 1,000 acres to around 10,000 acres on Saturday, forced the evacuation of 170 homes and is threatening more, fire officials told the Associated Press. Midpines is located along Highway 140, which leads to the west entrance of Yosemite National Park.

Aircraft from the 2nd Battalion, 244th Aviation Brigade of Pineville, La., which completed fire support missions in Butte County July 25, are assisting near Yosemite as requested by Cal Fire.

"During Hurricane Katrina, we had great support from all the other National Guard states and to be able to come out here and return that favor and support the state of California and Cal Fire and the California National Guard is a great opportunity," said Maj. Joseph Brocato, the unit commander.

The helicopters are equipped with 660-gallon water buckets and can carry firefighters and equipment to the fires, Capt. Al Bosco of the California National Guard told the Associated Press.

An additional aircraft, an S-70 Firehawk with a 1,000-gallon water tank is on standby at Mather and is available for rapid-response missions supporting Cal Fire operations if needed for the fire.

To date, more than two dozen National Guard helicopters have dropped nearly four million gallons of water on fires that have been burning throughout the state since June 22.

(Air Force Lt. Col. Lloyd J. Goodrow, with the Vermont National Guard, contributed to this article.)

Page last updated Thu September 29th, 2011 at 19:13