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Cal Guard aviators engage in statewide fire fight

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- With more than 210,000 acres of the state burnt or ablaze, California National Guard (CNG) personnel continue to join forces with the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to assist in efforts to extinguish fires.

Eight CNG helicopters and one CNG Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS)-equipped C-130J airplane are currently supporting Cal Fire requests to support firefighting operations throughout the state. Six helicopters are battling the blazes in Northern California, while two aircraft are dousing flames in Southern California.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, California has 13 fires burning through the state with varying levels of containment as of Aug. 16.

CNG helicopter crews have flown nearly 213 hours and conducted more than 531 water bucket missions, dropping an estimated 265,000 gallons, or 2.2 million pounds, of water across the state since being activated Aug. 7.

The CNG MAFFS C-130J from the 146th Airlift Wing (AW) has been working alongside other Guard and Reserve MAFFS airframes and crews from around the U.S. since Aug. 14, and together they have completed 29 drops and have released more than 70,000 gallons of fire retardant on California fires.

California Army National Guard aviation assets involved in the fight include one HH-60L Black Hawk helicopter staged at the Redding Airport for medical evacuation support, one UH-72 Lakota staged at the Chico Airport for infrared mapping operations and three UH-60 Black Hawks staged at the Tehachapi Airport. One UH-60 is from the Los Alamitos Army Airfield, while all other assets are from the Mather Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF). The UH-60 Black Hawks are equipped with "Bambi buckets" to engage in aerial firefighting.

Bambi buckets are collapsible buckets attached to the bottom of helicopters that use a valve to release water on the fire below. Six CNG helicopters are currently outfitted with 660-gallon buckets; one UH-60 Black Hawk is using a newer version of the "Bambi bucket," the Torrentula. This new bucket uses electric pumps to speed the process of filling the bucket and enables personnel to use a water source only 18 inches deep.

"This has been a very busy fire season. Our crews are not only dropping water, but we're providing [Cal Fire] with medical evacuation capabilities as well," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Robert Brockly, Mather AASF standardization officer and pilot with C Company, 1-168th General Support Aviation Battalion. "Our Black Hawks are very well-suited for the mission. In recent years, we've been able to upgrade to stronger engines on a number of our aircraft and we're fielding a more advanced water bucket. This allows us to carry more water to the fire and utilize shallow dip sites."

California Air National Guard assets include two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the Moffett Federal Airfield-based 129th Rescue Wing, staged at the Tehachapi Airport, also outfitted with "Bambi buckets." Additionally, one MAFFS-equipped C-130 Super Hercules airplane from the Channel Island Air National Guard Station-based 146th AW, along with a fellow MAFFS C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th AW, are staged at McClellan Air Park near Sacramento.

"Joint efforts between Army and Air Guard air crews have been seamless. Our training in the off season has really allowed us to bring the CNG's full aerial firefighting capabilities to bear, when our state needs us most," said Maj. David Weidman, a Pave Hawk pilot assigned to the 129th Rescue Squadron.

Air crews from the 146th AW were called to California following a multi-week firefighting mission working alongside other Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve MAFFS crews nationwide, to operate in their home state. Since being activated June 25, the MAFFS fleet has completed more than 701 drops and released more than 1.67 million gallons of retardant on fires in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

"Our pilots and crew have been engaged for more than six weeks now, battling wildfires across nine different western states," said Col. Paul J. Hargrove, 146th AW commander. "There are definitely mixed emotions about operating back in our home state now. We hate to see California ablaze, but our Airmen are proud to be able to come to the aid of their fellow citizens to protect lives and property."

MAFFS is a joint Department of Defense and Forest Service program designed to provide additional aerial firefighting resources when commercial and private air tankers are unable to meet the needs of the Forest Service. It can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide.

Nearly 8,000 firefighters have been fighting the fires on the ground across the state since they began and California-based Marine Corps units recently joined the fight as well, along with U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units from Colorado, North Carolina and Wyoming.

"These Guardsmen are leveraging their peace time training and war time deployment experience to make a difference right here at home," said Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, Adjutant General of the California National Guard. "We will continue to work with our civilian and military partners to protect Californians."