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National Guard brings heart and extra hands to the fire fight

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As more than 200 fires still remain active in California, and nearly one million acres burned, CAL FIRE personnel sense relief as an additional 2,000 National Guardsmen and women are put on alert for the next few months to join in their ground crew efforts to quell the flames, which began June 21.

Currently, the California National Guard has more than 1,000 Soldiers and Airmen deployed to support the firefighting suppression efforts throughout the state, to include more than 400 Soldiers serving on the front lines. The National Guard, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have contributed 22 helicopters to perform water bucket missions, and six C-130s, capable of saturating live trees with 3,000 gallons of fire retardant per flight.

A public information officer with CAL FIRE stationed in Butte County, Calif., Melissa Smith said, "We are thrilled to have the military come in here. We don't have enough people, and are spread so thin. We need the California National Guard, we need them to come in here and help us build this line."

Aircrews and ground crews labor tirelessly alongside CAL FIRE and civilian fire agencies. Ground crews are given a basic firefighting class by CAL FIRE instructors, tools and safety gear before digging fire lines, working side-by-side with actual firefighters.

Capt. Walt Williams, a CAL FIRE trainer for the National Guard ground crews, Task Forces Axe and Pick, said, "I was hired back from retirement to bulk up the forces and apply some of my experiences. I've always been impressed with the Guard's abilities and was about to find out how well we could turn them into firefighters."

California National Guard ground troops weren't the only ones to get a crash course in fire suppression efforts.

The 129th Rescue Wing, a California Air National Guard unit based out of Moffett Federal Airfield, adopted new capabilities and became water bucket-trained and certified, a new mission for the highly-skilled combat, search and rescue unit. Water bucket missions are also new to the Air Force. The 129th RQW is now the sole Air Force asset with the abilities to perform water bucket missions during California's early-onset fire season.

Performing more than 300 bucket drops and drenching scorched earth with an excess of 170,000 gallons of water since July 2, the aircrews were trained by CAL FIRE to acquaint themselves with the water bucket mission in their HH-60G Pave Hawks.

"It's very new to the [129th RQW] said Capt. Andrew (full name not given), pilot for the wing. "Just a couple of months ago we began modifications on the aircraft, as we anticipated this was going to be a rather unusual fire season."

The 129th RQW submitted requests to begin certification and necessary modifications to their Pave Hawks in order to provide another asset to the state.

"What we didn't anticipate was the fires breaking out while the modification forms were still in the approval process," Captain Andrew said.

The forms being in transition ended up being a blessing for the 129th RQW because more personnel were available to push the paperwork through the system due to the demand for more aircraft assistance.

"We got our aircraft approved and modified in record time," he said.

The 129th RQW is working alongside and benefiting from the Army National Guard's previous knowledge of water bucket missions. There are currently 22 rotary-wing aircraft, including nine from other states, to assist in the firefighting support mission, Operation Lightning Strike.

"When it gets to the flying portion, everyone has received the same training. CAL FIRE does a really good job ensuring we all have the same basic knowledge," Captain Andrew said.

"The Army has been tremendous in giving us assistance and technical knowledge," he added. "Lucky for me, they're all guys I flew with when I was flying with the Army, so it's really easy to have a working relationship with these guys."

The training and work relationships between the National Guard and CAL FIRE have blossomed into an understanding of California's necessity of all its assets, military and civilian.

"We've gotten along absolutely fantastically," said Rob VanWormer, a CAL FIRE Battalion Chief operating out of the Chico Municipal Airport, assisting military aircrews from Nebraska, Utah, Wisconsin and California. "They're highly-motivated, really dedicated people. They've been integral coming up with thoughts and ideas, whenever an issue arises," VanWormer added.

The National Guard echoes the sentiment.

"I'm just very pleased how everybody's just pitched in, basically same team, same fight, and everybody's doing what they have to do to get the job done," Captain Andrew said. "And now that we're on this, we're looking at pushing through some paperwork to get additional capabilities for [our aircraft] for future fires."

The 129th RQW's anticipation of a longer fire fighting season is in accordance with many civilian fire authorities beliefs about the work that has yet to be completed. Even though more than 1,400 fires have been contained, it looks like the National Guard will remain an active and positive member in the fire fight.

"They have all the heart in the world, and we can work with that," said Captain Williams. "I have a feeling the Guard is going to be involved right in the firefighting until it rains."