By Staff Sgt. Edward Siguenza | California National GuardApril 10, 2017
IONE, Calif. -- The living, breathing enemy that consumes the Golden State every year is the reason the California National Guard and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) unite months prior to facing their arch nemesis.
For about two decades, the Cal Guard and CAL FIRE have staged Wildland Firefighting Training that brings together the Cal Guard's air assets (helicopters) and CAL FIRE's air operations unit for practical and field exercises. They united again April 7-9, restarting a rhythm that'll stretch into this summer's fire season.
"The exercise's biggest advantage is it gives us an opportunity to train personnel in the duties required to support the program," said John Winder, CAL FIRE's military asset coordinator. "New MHEM (military helicopter managers), AAML (agency aviation military liaison), MFL (military field liaison) and LNO (liaison officers) are all exposed to an environment in this training that is as close to actual activation as we can get. Those that are already qualified also get to exercise their skills."
Every year California burns, says CAL FIRE Alex Lujan, a fire captain and exercise coordinator. The Cal Guard's experienced pilots and helicopters have been vital to battling wildfires, especially in difficult terrain. This year continues a cooperative partnership the Cal Guard and CAL FIRE have shared since the late 1990s, Lujan explained.
"Our first fire mission (with Cal Guard) was in 1987, but this program has been around since 1997 and it's gotten better every year," added Lujan. "People keep asking if we're going to see a lot of fires this year despite all the rain we've been getting. Let me put it this way: Grass and trees burn. I haven't seen California not burn in my lifetime."
Cal Guard aircraft dropped well over one million gallons of water and retardant on wildfires each of the last four years, according to Capt. William L. Martin, Cal Guard public affairs deputy director. The Guard fielded several hundred hand crew members in 2014, over 1,000 in 2015 and more than 400 in 2016.
"The training is important so that the California National Guard can integrate air support for CAL FIRE for fire suppression activities," said Lt. Col. Daniel Anderson, battalion commander of Cal Guard's 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment and one of several dozen Guardsmen prepping for fire season for the umpteenth time. "This gives us the opportunity to train our personnel, test our capabilities and work with CAL FIRE directives before the season begins. It's preparation for everyone."
This year, the Cal Guard will continue supporting CAL FIRE and California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) by providing up to 14 rotary-wing aircraft available for personnel and cargo, reconnaissance missions, firefighting (water buckets), and rescue (Medevac). California is one of a few states that possesses a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS), or two fixed-wing aircraft that can drop 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water in one pass.
"When the California Emergency Management Agency calls the Cal Guard to support CAL FIRE in fire suppression activities, both entities must be prepared," said Richard Cordova, CAL FIRE information officer. "This training is a required per the cooperative use agreement to ensure that all qualifications and standards are met by both agencies."
For the training, the California Army and Air Guard flew a CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Black Hawks and UH-72 Lakotas around Amador County, coordinating water drops and establishing communication as if a real wildfire existed. Every Cal Guard helicopter includes a CAL FIRE MHEM, who coordinates water drop locations with ground command.
"Going through the process from Day 1 all the way until the first drop is made is very important," said Winder. "This is critical to ensure a successful activation when the actual emergency occurs."
Scott Watson, a retired CAL FIRE battalion chief, is one of dozens of CAL FIRE veterans brought in to support the training program.
"CAL FIRE and other departments, including federal agencies, routinely employ helicopters for fire suppression when fighting wildfires," Watson explained. "California Guard helicopters are requested by Cal OES to support these agencies in fire suppression operations just about every year. They give a tremendous advantage fighting fires from above. Given the military experience, this cooperative program is the best throughout the nation."