MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin National Guard members are burnishing their skills while supporting a demanding mission battling wildfires in California and Washington.
The mission in the West began in mid-August and will continue through mid-September.
One helicopter and six personnel from several units assigned to West Bend's Army Aviation Support Facility #2 are providing Washington with medevac support, while two aircraft and 17 personnel from Madison's 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation, are assisting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) with general aviation support and firefighting.
"The mission to California is to support CAL FIRE wildland firefighting," said Lt. Col. Dan Allen, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation in Madison.
Wisconsin crews flying UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation, have dumped 184 buckets totaling about 130,000 gallons of water on the Caldor fire, which has burned 210,000 acres. Soldiers have accumulated 94 hours of flight time on the mission.
First Lt. Meredith Porter, the officer in charge and a pilot with the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation, said the demanding work schedules were not a problem.
"All our Soldiers are very happy to be here to help in any way they can," she said. "Despite long days, morale is high and everybody knows they are here doing what they can to help and to learn."
Sgt. Zachary Hoy, a crew chief in Porter's unit, said he's learned to be flexible and adjust techniques and methods.
"We got to try out a different style water bucket, and we, as a crew, had to make some changes to smooth out the process of filling the bucket with water," Hoy said. "It was a challenge learning how this bucket behaves differently from our buckets we brought from home."
Porter agreed and said the challenges have made her a better pilot.
"Flying with water buckets is a challenging mode of flight," she said. "The environmental conditions combined with a few thousand pounds of water in the bucket makes every control input more important. Water here is an incredibly valuable asset, so there is little room for error when dropping water on fire lines. I have no doubt I've become a better pilot."
"Wildfire management is an incredibly complex operation," she added. "I have done more interagency work on this mission than I have ever done, and I have learned a lot from the other Soldiers and civilians I have worked with here.
"I have also learned a great deal about wildfires and the impact they have on people who live in areas like this. I am blown away by the resilience of the local citizens, and I feel compelled to do more to support fire safety and forest management all around."
Hoy is thankful to be a part of the firefighting battle.
"It is such a fulfilling, cool mission, and it's great we have been able to bring more people from back home to gain this valuable and meaningful experience," he said.