ARLINGTON, Va. – The Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico is now the largest fire in the state's history, scorching more than 310,000 acres and prompting the governor to activate nearly 180 New Mexico National Guard members.
The New Mexico Guard is not alone in battling blazes before the June start of the traditional wildfire season. Other states have already responded to fires that have burned more than 570,000 acres across the nation this year.
Supporting state and local authorities in battling blazes is almost a never-ending mission for some Guard units, said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. National Guard men and women assist with ground operations and rotary and fixed-wing aircraft that drop water and fire retardant on wildfires.
“The National Guard is now involved in fighting fires almost year-round,” Hokanson said. “That’s why it’s important for our Soldiers and Airmen to remain ready for short-notice events such as wildfires, extreme weather, or other emergencies.”
In early January, more than 25 Texas Army National Guard members supported local authorities battling fires in the Bastrop area within Texas. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Penrose and his team had to act quickly.
“We got a call about 3 o’clock, [got] on station about 4 o’clock, and spent about an hour firefighting with local agencies out there,” said Penrose, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief with the Texas Army Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Penrose and other aircrew members used collapsible buckets to deliver and drop water from the air. In total, the Texas Army Guard members performed 42 bucket drops to help extinguish fires in the area within four days.
In March, a unit training assembly weekend for a Florida Army National Guard aircrew turned into an actual operation when the Florida Division of Emergency Management requested help to fight the Chipola Complex wildfires.
For Army 1st Lt. Isaiah Carlton, pilot and commander of the Florida Army Guard’s B Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment, supporting the wildfire response in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was a first.
“We train for it and stay ready to respond, but this is the first time I’ve ever had to put it into practice,” said Carlton. “It is extremely fulfilling when you know you’re coming out to help people [and] see the individuals affected by our efforts.”
In addition to the pilots, the Florida Army Guard activated more than 20 Soldiers, two Black Hawks and two Chinooks. The Florida Army Guard helicopters conducted 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 take on the 739 Fire in the south-central part of the state. A drought coupled with strong winds created hazardous road conditions.
“This fire made several 180-degree shifts in direction, multiple times each day,” said Army Capt. Joshua Miller, commander of the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 755th Firefighting Team (Headquarters). “Driving to the fire was also dangerous. On the road, it would go from good visibility to near-zero visibility with a gust of wind and smoke causing a brownout.”
In late April, the Guard activated 32 more members for another wildfire raging in southwest Nebraska.
The record-setting fires in New Mexico caused ground transportation companies with the New Mexico Army National Guard to prepare and deliver non-potable water to wildfire sites and bottled water to responders and evacuees. Guard members from other units helped evacuate people in affected areas. They also rendered medical aid and wellness checks to civil responders and volunteers.
The New Mexico Guard also used air assets to support authorities – something pilots and crew members were training for just as wildfires rapidly spread in mid-April.
A fire blazing near one location made it clear they would put their training to immediate use, said Army Capt. Dustin Offret, a pilot with the New Mexico Army Guard’s G Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment.
“It opened our eyes to the seriousness that the fire season could hold,” he said, adding that the urgency of the situation motivated “our aircrews to capitalize on the training to its fullest extent and hit the ground running.”
Offret said dropping water on ground targets of varied sizes and locations is a collaborative effort.
“Performing flight duties in hot temperatures and high altitudes takes hours of training to become proficient,” he said. “These types of missions with [collapsible buckets] take the skill of the whole flight crew to be successful.”
Most New Mexico Guard members fighting blazes had recently returned home after completing a deployment to the Middle East.
Army Sgt. Bradley Foley, a flight medic in the same unit as Offret, said switching gears from a wartime environment to a domestic one was exciting and rewarding.
“Being able to perform our medevac duties in the Middle East and then come home and serve the people in our state has been a bit surreal,” he said. “Dropping water buckets on flames to help ground crews get the job done is astounding.”
In Idaho, three Air National Guard airlift wings recently converged at Gowen Field for an airborne firefighting exercise with state and federal partners.
The units were training on the employment of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, a fire-retardant system that rolls into the back of a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
Chief Master Sgt. Cameron Pieters, a flight engineer with the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing, said the spring training was an opportunity to “knock off the cobwebs” two years after the most devastating fire season in the country.
“Coming out here is really about honing those skills, giving ourselves plenty of opportunities to fly and do drops in a controlled environment,” he said.
Pieters added the training helps crew members embrace the unpredictable nature of wildfires.
“When we get on an actual fire, we never know what we’re going to get,” he said. “So this is an opportunity for us to maybe make mistakes and figure out what it is that we need to focus on for the year.”
Pieters said spring training is about achieving a sound operational tempo when crews go on a mission.
“Some of the normal habit patterns we have when we fly kind of go out the window and we have to do different things,” he said. “So in getting ready for [modular airborne fire fighting systems operations], it’s really just having a good mindset and communication with other crew members — ensuring that we have a safe flight.”