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Patience over fire

Washington Army National Guard troops join wildfire fight

Washington Army National Guard helicopters prepare to load up to drop water on wildfires burning near Wenatchee. /David Kellogg

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When it comes to a raging wildfire, patience wouldn't seem to be a virtue, but Washington Army National Guard helicopter crews working on the Wenatchee Fire Complex outside Leavenworth had to come to terms with that very paradox.

"It's frustrating not flying," said CW3 Dan Johnson, B Company 168th Aviation. The other pilots and crew chiefs echoed his sentiment. The waiting Guardsmen were impatient to help combat one of the most severe Washington wildfires in memory.

"There's a lot of things that need to be in place before we just put aircraft into the sky," explained Jack Shambo, a Natural Resources Department helicopter manager who coordinates the National Guard assets with civilian aviators.

Each night, the firefighting pauses. Each morning, forestry officials must re-coordinate with surveillance airplanes high overhead and with firefighters battling the blazes on the ground. The officials put together the day's strategy with safety being the first consideration. They will keep the helicopters on the ground if the conditions are deemed unsafe for flight.

The troops, knowing that just a few miles away 39,000 acres were ablaze, could only sit in the smoky valley and wait for their orders. Finally, the reconnaissance helicopter lifted off to scout a safe route through the smoke.

"Something's probably going to happen," predicted CW2 Chris Haeder, C Company 140th Aviation, as he watched the chopper disappear into the smoke and listened as its thumping rotors faded away. Once the helicopter was out of earshot, the thuck, thuck, thuck of the sprinklers, meant to keep the dust down on the makeshift airfield, filled the void. Their repetitive ticks were like a dozen metronomes: reminders of the passing time.

More Guard

Shambo said that he appreciates the support from the National Guard troops and only wishes that they would participate in wildfire fights more often. The severity of the fires this year has required Gov. Christine Gregoire to call in the National Guard twice, which is unprecedented. The last time they were activated even once at this magnitude was more than a decade ago.

There are agreements that prevent the governor from calling up the National Guard wildfire assets on a more regular basis. Partnerships established between the government and private contractors dictate that the National Guard shouldn't become involved until private assets are tapped out.

Shambo would prefer to see the National Guard assets involved in less severe fires as well to ensure the troops are battle ready. Being thrown into the biggest, most severe fires only, which happen infrequently, makes it harder to be fully tuned right out of the gate.

CW2 Eric West, B Company 168th Aviation, remembered how different practicing water bucket pickups and drops on Joint Base Lewis McChord were compared to doing them in the Cascade Mountains in the middle of a billowing forest fire. In the past decade, Guardsmen have been running combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, not dropping thousands of gallons of water on fires burning along near-vertical mountainsides.

"Other than putting it in the dust and getting shot at, this is much harder," said West, a Chinook helicopter pilot. 

Shambo believes future wildfires will only become more severe with global warming and the National Guard should play a role in snuffing them out. "There's more structures out in the woods now, more resources at risk," he added. "It just gets more complicated every year. This is a marker year for all of us."

Tough flying

After the reconnaissance helicopter returned, a radio call went to Shambo and he passed along the orders. The CH-47 Chinook and the UH-60 Blackhawk - bright orange buckets in tow - followed the scout helicopter and a privately owned Chinook into the barely visible mountains due to the sepia haze.

Once the crews get into the air the need for patience is forgotten. They rush to drop as many buckets of water onto the fires as possible before they must return to refuel, said Johnson.

This day, they flew into the wilderness and drew water from a pristine lake at 5,600 feet. They dropped it on a steep mountainside in an attempt to keep the fire from burning toward a population area. Earlier, they had hauled water from Lake Wenatchee. Before that it was Lake Chelan. Before that they carried water from a small hole in the Wenatchee River just big enough to submerge their buckets. 

Changing water sources are one of many challenges helicopter crews must overcome, said Johnson. Pilots must navigate around rugged mountains, against strong winds, through thick smoke and toward suddenly blinding sunlight, all the while with nearly 16,000 pounds of water dangling from 100 feet of rope.

"With a bucket of water it's like flying a pig," explained Haeder. "It's not easy."

Fire crews on the ground, armed with chainsaws, pickaxes, shovels and radios, dictate how the water should be dropped, said CW4 Jay Enders, 168th Aviation. "They are the customer."

Sometimes the firemen just want the water to fall on dirt to make mud, West said. Other times they want the water to splash directly on the fire.

"The guys on the ground definitely give feedback. If you miss, they give very serious feedback. When it's right they'll tell you, 'Do it again in the exact same spot!'"


On good days, the Guardsmen can fly for six to eight hours. Every two hours they return for fuel, said 1st Lt. Kevin Robillard, C Company, 140th Aviation, a Blackhawk pilot and the acting liaison officer for the mission.

It was a bad sign when the Guard's Chinook appeared out of the smoke after 20 minutes. The chopper landed and the crew chiefs hustled to the bucket. It was broken. It couldn't hold water. After 15 minutes of troubleshooting, they attached their spare.

Johnson's jaw was stern, his tone upbeat but at the same time sharp. He wanted to get back into the air immediately. Before long, other helicopters would return for fuel. Johnson even hoped that his crew would be allowed to continue independently to haul water while the others refueled. But the request was denied. The smoke had thickened and the visibility worsened, making it too dangerous. All the helicopters returned and were grounded. The Guardsmen waited patiently for an opening in the sky and a new order to come. They hoped until the sun was setting. At that point they knew; they would have to wait until tomorrow.

"It's frustrating," said Johnson, repeating the words that he had spoken in the morning.

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