News: Alaska Army Guard Black Hawks and crews help fight Funny River Fire
Story by Candis Olmstead
JOINT ELMENDORF-RICHARSON, Alaska - Two Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and aircrews from the 1-207th Aviation Regiment helped fight the Funny River Fire, performing water bucket operations May 24 to 26 near Soldotna.
The fire originated near Funny River Road at about 4 p.m., May 19 in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the Kenai Peninsula. It grew quickly over the next several days and by May 23, it had grown to 96,584 acres, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. All available firefighting assets were being used and the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center contacted the Army National Guard to request Black Hawk water bucket assistance.
“We had a very dynamic fire situation,” said Pete Buist, a fire information officer with the AICC, based out of Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. “At that time, there was significant fire spreading toward areas with homes and cabins and we were looking for additional resources to help slow fire spread,” he said.
The aircrews’ first mission supporting the firefight at Funny River was Saturday night, May 24.
“At first, we were working the fire line that had jumped the fuel break,” said Black Hawk pilot, Capt. Zachary Miller. “They had dozed a huge line to try and make sure the fire didn’t push north and endanger that area, but embers shot over it and started spot fires on the north side of the fuel break,” he said.
On Sunday, they started in the area where they had left off the night before because it had started to flare up again. Then they were sent to help ground crews protect some cabins and a home that were eventually saved.
The aircrews — two pilots and a crew chief in each helo — dropped water buckets within 30 to 50 feet of the structures. They also “wet the line” each evening to help prevent flare-ups overnight.
The Black Hawk aircrews flew five missions, dropping 334 buckets in three days. They filled the buckets to about 630 gallons, weighing around 5,257 pounds, said 1-207 Aviation Regiment Commander, Lt. Col. Matthew Schell.
The 1-207th aircrews receive annual water bucket training in classrooms and in flight, said Schell. The Department of Forestry instruction includes topics from wildfire behavior to airspace control and communication. The unit receives additional academic training, including performance planning and instruction on technique. To remain currency, pilots must complete six “picks”— dropping the bucket into the water and filling it up — within the previous 12 months.
“The bucket can be tricky when it’s in the water,” said Schell. “It can skid across the top of the water and not fill, or if you dip too deep, electrical connections can malfunction,” he said.
Crew coordination and communication is standardized, concise, and timely, which is crucial because only the crew chief can see the bucket.
As the crew picks up a rhythm, they pick, takeoff and drop with just a few phrases. They also must adjust altitude and airspeed for the drop in order to distribute the water appropriately.
“Too slow or too low, and it doesn’t have time to spread out in the air,” said Schell. “Too fast or too high and it turns to mist, which isn’t effective,” he said.
The Alaska Army National Guard has more than a dozen qualified Black Hawk water bucket operation crews, which is important during fire season because crews are swapped out at least every four days.
They were requested by the AICC to provide support for three days.
“At the time, rain was in the forecast, so we determined that three days of additional assistance from the Army Guard’s helos might be just what we needed,” said Buist. Additional days could have been requested upon further evaluation at a later date, he said.
As of the morning of May 29, the NWCG reported the human-caused wildfire had grown to 192,831 acres and was 46 percent contained.
Containment is based on a suppression line at the fire’s perimeter. The north shore of Tustumena Lake is a natural barrier to the fire and there is also a barrier constructed by “dozer and hand crews” west of the fire which parallels the Sterling Highway from south of Soldotna toward Kasilof, said Buist.
The Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawks and crew dropped a total of about 210,420 gallons in three days to help fight the massive Funny River Fire. Army Guard operations, maintenance and refuel personnel also assisted in the effort.