By Sgt. Brianne RoudebushApril 18, 2016
SUTTER CREEK, Calif. -- At the top of a hill overlooking Lake Pardee, two motorcyclists stop to take in the view of the scene below them. Boats float across the water, people fish along the banks, and on the other side of the lake, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter dips a bright orange bucket into the water. The motorcyclists have seen this before, it's a common site during California's wildfire season.
"I didn't know anything was burning," one of them said.
The helicopter was not responding to a fire this time; rather, it was participating in joint Wild Land Fire Fighting training between CAL FIRE and the California National Guard held April 15-17.
The three-day training kicked off Friday with classroom instruction and concluded with two days of practical exercises at a helibase near Sutter Creek, California.
"The purpose of the training was to ensure that CAL FIRE firefighters and agency personnel that are called upon to fight fire from the air can interact with the National Guard in their aircraft and assimilate into their air crews," Chief Dan Reese, the deputy chief of tactical operations for CAL FIRE, said. "We want to ensure that they can all effectively work together."
During California's exhaustive wildfire season, CAL FIRE often relies on additional support from the National Guard.
"We can go to the National Guard for extra helicopters and air power," Reese said. "In the summertime when we typically do call in the Guard, [all of our assets] have been deployed already, so they are a surge capability for us to be able to utilize."
Reese explained that California's ongoing drought has caused a severe tree mortality issue -- meaning that there are millions of dead trees throughout the state -- which could potentially have devastating effects during the fire season.
"We always have to prepare for the worst, right?" Reese said.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shaun Hollins of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment echoed these sentiments, adding, "I don't have any forecasts personally, but every fire season is usually expected to be worse that the last and that's what we plan for."
This year, the Guard faces the added challenge of managing CAL FIRE support requests without the 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment (Air Assault), which is currently deployed in Kuwait.
"They won't be getting back until September so they will be completely out of the mix for this fire season," Maj. John Allen, the executive officer for the 3-140th, said. "That's one-third of the aviation assets that we provide."
Several pilots in command, crewmembers and airframes from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade and the 640th Aviation Support Battalion are augmenting the air assault battalion in Kuwait as well.
"There's really no way you can make up for a whole air assault battalion being gone," Allen said. "It just means a higher operational tempo for the Black Hawks out of Mather Airfield and leaning on the Chinooks out of Stockton for the bucket drops."
The CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters were recently modified with radio equipment that can communicate with the system CAL FIRE uses, so the entire fleet is available for this year's fire response.
The Chinooks, which are more powerful than the UH-60 Black Hawk and HH-60 Pave Hawk utility helicopters, are able to carry 2,000-gallon water buckets. The Black Hawks and Pave Hawks carry buckets with about a 600-gallon capacity.
"We got a new valve system that is made for low water sources," Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric Aguilar, a CH-47 pilot with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, said. "It allows us to pick up water in as little as 28 inches of water, so that's a big plus for our aircraft now."
The valve is especially important during times of drought when water sources run very low. The entire training was conducted with the drought in mind -- water was used sparingly and drops were conducted along the side of a hill allowing the water to run back into the lake.
"Overall, the training was excellent," Aguilar said. "This was our first time using the new bucket system, so it's good familiarization."
"Hopefully, we won't be too affected with the CAB deploying, but I believe we can handle it, along with our civilian assets," he continued. "We have very competent crews to facilitate those missions."