Operation Lightning Strike: An epic start to an early fire season
By Col. Amos Bagdasarian, 129th Rescue Wing Commander
/ Published July 28, 2008
MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- As you all know, in late June wildfires rapidly engulfed Northern California due to hundreds of lightning strikes. In the face of this state emergency, aptly named Operation Lightning Strike, the men and women of the 129th were ready to assist.
We first started out the firefight by sending key personnel to help support the 24/7 operations at the Joint Forces Headquarters in Sacramento. Our wing also mobilized 29 personnel to provide direct ground support to help CAL FIRE with the wildfire threat. CAL FIRE trained the Airmen on firefighting techniques July 23-28 at the Wildland Fire Training Center at McClellan Air Park. After completing training, the Airmen remain qualified to fight fires for one year.
In addition to the headquarters and ground support personnel, we provided two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and numerous aircrews to perform water bucket drops on the fires, becoming the only rescue unit in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard qualified to fight fires.
The hard-charging water bucket maintenance team that included Chief Master Sgt. Uwanna Perras, Master Sgt. Joseph Harris, Tech. Sgt. Brian Taylor, Staff Sgt. David Ortiz and Senior Airman Lance Zhang, prevailed in having the HH-60s modified and certified to drop water in record time. Since we began water bucket operations July 3, the aircrews dropped more than 150,000 gallons of water over the Butte and Mendocino Complex fires.
While we were on fire duty, our MC-130P and HH-60 aircrews, and PJs remained on search and rescue alert. Ready and responsive as always, we launched a rescue mission here June 16 to save a fisherman experiencing a medical emergency aboard a Canadian fishing boat 500 miles off the coast from Eureka, Calif. While an MC-130 departed with the PJ team hours after being notified by the Coast Guard, two Pave Hawks and aircrews were recalled from firefighting operations in Chico and Ukiah.
The next day we launched two Pave Hawks (pink-painted for fire duty) and two Combat Shadows to pick up the patient and pararescuemen from the fishing boat. Our Airmen transferred the patient to hospital personnel at the Regional Medical Center of San Jose later that evening. The rescue subsequently made local and Canadian news headlines.
I am extremely proud of all of you, from the firefighting-trained ground crews to the headquarters support personnel. You embody the characteristics of 129th Airmen - dedication, selflessness, and a firm commitment to helping others in need. Thank you and keep up the outstanding work!