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Deployments make WA National Guard helicopters mostly unavailable for fire season

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Sep. 13, 2011 at 6:00 am with No Comments »
September 13, 2011 8:46 am

Washington firefighters turned the corner on a 4,200-acre wildfire this weekend without one of their traditional allies –  helicopter crews from the Washington National Guard.

Most of the National Guard’s helicopters aren’t available to fight in-state wildfires this month because they’re deployed in Kuwait or recovering from a recent mission in Afghanistan.

State officials say it’s very unlikely they would have called on the Guard even if the aviation units were back home and ready to go.

“We’re confident we’ve had all the resources we’ve needed,” Department of Natural Resources spokesman Bryan Flint said.

The state has not called up National Guard helicopter crews to fight wildfires since 2006, Flint said. At that time, 22 wildfires were blazing across the state.

Hazy smoke clouded skies over the weekend, but Washington’s wildfires last week never approached the degree of emergency the state experienced five years ago, Flint said.

Two wildfires are burning in Washington today. The main one is the Goldendale fire, which is mostly contained after burning 18 homes over more than 4,250 acres in southern Washington.

In the past, wildfire season was a busy time for soldiers in the National Guard’s 66th Theater Aviation Command.

The state’s aviation command has “been involved in firefighting missions every summer since 1994,” reads a summary of its accomplishments on the Washington National Guard’s web site. “Our CH-47s are capable of dropping 2,000 gallons at a time, and our UH-60s can drop 660 gallons.”

Fighting fires remains an important focus for the National Guard. Aviation crews train every year to keep up the certification they need to join in wildfire missions.

But Guardsmen these days are more likely to be called up to active-duty to serve in the Middle East. Aviation units are in especially high demand, according to Army reports.

One Washington National Guard aviation unit returned from a deployment in Afghanistan in June. That unit – B Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment – has about 70 soldiers who fly CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Its Chinooks are back in the state, but they’re not available for wildfire missions because they’re undergoing the routine maintenance that follows a combat deployment. Guard spokesman Capt. Keith Kosik said they could be called up if something “incredibly urgent” happens.

Another state aviation unit – the 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment – deployed to Kuwait this spring with about 180 soldiers. It’s the Guard’s primary unit that flies UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.

That leaves two Blackhawks in the state that are ready for wildfire missions, Kosik said.

Flint said the state usually backs up its firefighters with helicopters it can lease from the U.S. Forest Service, or by calling contract crews from other states.

He said a wet 2011 made for a late fire season this summer.

“We’re usually wrapping up by now,” he said. “It still could get bad, but it’s been at the low end of the average.”

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