News: Arizona Guard aviators prepare for fire season
Story by Sgt. Lauren Twigg
PHOENIX - The thumping drone of Black Hawks are heard before the helicopters are seen. They come in, one-by-one, dropping hundreds of gallons of water on areas of flame.
With syncopated precision, the helicopters pick up water in bright orange buckets and continue their drops on the designated spots.
All of the Black Hawks then land and the rotors slow to a stop. The pilots and crews exit the landing site and go to lunch for a break following a long morning of training with the use of Bambi Buckets to fight wildfires.
Members of the Arizona Army National Guard’s Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment participated in their annual wildfire fighting training at the Buckeye Armed Forces Reserve Center, May 22-23.
“We are conducting our annual fire bucket training so that we are certified to fight fires within our state,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ken Twigg, an instructor pilot for A Company, 2-285th Avn. Regt, and one of the coordinators for this event. “This state is about 114,000 square miles, and a lot of that is rural setting, which poses a threat for wildfires, so we want to make sure we are prepared to assist in the event there is a major fire disaster.”
Every year, Arizona is faced with the threat of wildfires during what is commonly known amongst Arizonans as fire season. Wildfires can easily displace residents from their homes and destroy natural resources, which is why it is imperative to have all response agencies readily available.
“There is more to it than just flying around and grabbing buckets of water,” said Tom Tobin, the Air Tactical Group supervisor for State Forestry Division, and a pilot for the Prescott National Forest. “We have a standard everyone must be able to meet so we can all be on the same page in the event of an emergency.”
The training is designed for aviators from the Arizona National Guard to receive validation by the Arizona State Forestry Division in order to provide aviation support to state wildfire emergencies. The aviators must show their capabilities to communicate with ground units while working effectively with their own flight crew to ensure successful water drops.
“We are the support element to the team on the ground, who coordinate and communicate with us on where to drop water,” Twigg said.”In turn, they use the water we drop to create mud, which helps stop the fire in its path and begin eliminating the threat.”
While tactical operations for responding to wildfires are a major part of safety, communication can quickly become a risk factor if overlooked.
“A multi-million dollar aircraft will sit on the runway if they are ill-prepared, do not know the terminologies we use, nor have an understanding of the state operations for responding to a fire,” Tobin said. “Those differences can make or break how we function.”
This training also works as a conditioning tool for the aviation unit, which has seen more activation for deployments overseas.
“As a National Guard unit we have been focusing on our wartime mission for a long time,” said Capt. Caleb Grandy, the commander for A Company, 2-285th Avn. Regt. “We have been in and out of deployments for the past ten years, so this is preparing a lot of our guys who have been in the wartime mindset, and get them back into our state mission.”
Although the pilots are in the driver’s seat, the crew receives just as much training – if not a little more.
“Our crew members are a huge asset and they are the eyes of the whole flight crew,” Grandy said. “They are timing drops and communicating with the pilots; they are the ones who get the buckets in the water and get the water dropped on the fire.”
What made this training even more of a challenge this year was the use of a buoy wall. Fire crews refer to the large water-filled orange cylinder as a pumpkin tank. Typically, the unit is able to train through the use of the canals located on the outskirts of the Valley.
“Using a buoy wall is difficult - it is like dropping a shot glass into a thimble,” Twigg said. “Since this would be the resource we will normally turn to because of the lack of natural water resources in this state, this is good training for us in the long-run.”
During the training, Blackhawks can be seen coming in, hovering over the pumpkin tank, attempting to drop, and miss. They would repeat this until they could successfully get the bucket into the buoy wall. As the day went on, the Blackhawk crews became more proficient in this water-retrieval method.
“The coordination with using the buoy wall is more challenging, so the more practice we can get, the better,” Grandy said.
The crews have to communicate with each other constantly in order to make this happen, Twigg adds. “Over time during this practice, we develop a battle rhythm and the process becomes a smooth operation.”
Support from the Buckeye Fire Department and the State Forestry Division was provided on the ground. The personnel gave target spots for the air crews to drop, simulating how a fire response would initially function.
“The Buckeye FD and State Lands hot shot crews increased the reality of the exercise,” Twigg said. “They called out spots where we needed to drop, just like we would from a ground guide on a real fire, so we got to simulate actually fighting a fire.”
The reality of the training helped flight crews understand the challenges faced with fighting wildfires from the air and how to effectively communicate under pressure.
“Our air crews did a great job working together and conquered frustration, which was an excellent element to help give the crew a real-life feel on how to overcome stress while working together,” Grandy said.
The Arizona National Guard is an organization of volunteers dedicated to protecting and defending the interests of the community, state and the nation.
“Our guys are motivated and ready to serve their state,” Grandy said. “We have not had very many opportunities in the past to provide support to state emergencies so we hope to be utilized more often in the future.”