MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin National Guard was part of an international effort last week to extinguish northern Wisconsin's largest wildfire in 33 years.
Two Black Hawk helicopters from the Madison, Wis.-based Army Aviation Support Facility 2, spent several hours May 15 using sling-loaded "buckets" to scoop water from nearby lakes and douse hot spots with precision.
"We had two hotspots that jumped [May 15] and that can start another fire," explained John Gozdzialski of the state Department of Natural Resources' Forestry Division. "Between the Canadian tankers and the Black Hawks, we could target them and do exact pinpointed drops. What we didn't want was anything to escape this perimeter containment. Having those air attack resources in place and in operation was phenomenal, because we would have been using some of our ground attack folks to get in here and try to clean this up. That was the primary benefit of the Black Hawks."
According to the DNR, 39 fire departments were involved in battling the wildfire, including assets from Minnesota, the Canadian province of Ontario and the Lac Courtre Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. The blaze scorched nearly 8,000 acres — approximately 12.5 square miles — and destroyed 47 structures, including 17 residences. The DNR reported that 77 structures in the fire zone were saved.
"The Wisconsin National Guard had a small piece to play here, and we're proud to play it," Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin, said during a May 16 press conference at the Gordon Town Hall. "To me it shows the leadership of the DNR — they reached out to us last year and we helped train Black Hawk crews for exactly this eventuality, when the National Guard would be needed to assist. It certainly paid dividends."
Larry Glodoski, the DNR incident commander during the Douglas County wildfire, said a bureau specialist from the DNR's Forest Protection Bureau proposed training Wisconsin National Guard Black Hawk crews in firefighting last year. The training also involved the Fort McCoy, Wis., fire department and land management office.
"Last year's training was the second live burn fire training that we have conducted over the last number of years," said Lt. Col. Stephen Watkins, one of the Black Hawk pilots who helped fight the fire May 15. "The smoke in a real fire has the potential to significantly obscure the flight crew's ability to perform accurate water drops, so training in that environment allows the flight crews to develop tactics, techniques and procedures to minimize the impact of the smoke."
Glodoski said the training proved successful.
"We used them and it turned out like we hoped it would," Glodoski said. "They were trained, they adapted — they were able to use the training quite a bit [May 15] and they did quite a bit of good."
"This is what the country expects of the National Guard," Dunbar added. "In a very short time we can assist where necessary."
The Black Hawk helicopters traveled two hours from Madison to Douglas County, which borders Minnesota and the Lake Superior shoreline, and combined for approximately 60 bucket drops — an estimated 35,000 gallons of water.
Fire bucket operations are a coordinated effort between the firefighters on the ground, aircraft pilots and Black Hawk crew chiefs, Watkins explained. The ground crews identify areas in need of accurate dousing, and radio that information to a DNR pilot who in turn relays the location to the Black Hawk pilots. The helicopter crew determines a flight path that accounts for the aircraft's speed, the wind's effect on the aircraft and the 660 gallons of water that will drop from the bucket, the height of the fire, as well as obstacles in the flight path and the bucket which is tethered 90 feet below the aircraft.
Gov. Scott Walker, who was on hand with Dunbar and other state officials May 16 to view the fire damage and thank those involved in the firefighting effort, noted that if the Wisconsin National Guard hadn't helped clear tree debris from a summer windstorm two years ago, this fire could have easily been much worse.
"Every time we ask, like the flip of a switch, they're there," Walker said. "It's even more remarkable when I think over the past two years I have been to multiple, multiple [sendoff ceremonies]. These are men and women who put on the uniform and go to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and then at the flip of a switch they come and help when something like this happens."
Watkins recalled how the Wisconsin Army National Guard used to provide UH-1 helicopters with medical crews for major summer holidays in the days before air ambulances were available in Wisconsin — a program called "Friend in the Sky." He has flown response missions to tornado-damaged sites in Wisconsin and also helped airlift residents to safety in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
"Taking part in real world support missions is extremely rewarding and humbling," Watkins said. "I take great pride in having Wisconsin Army National Guard helicopters ready to go 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to support the governor, adjutant general and citizens of the state."