Thursday, April 6, 2017

New Mexico National Guard readies for wildfires

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The roar of military Blackhawk helicopters fills the skies over forest lands near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Usually all green, these ships have blaze-orange stripes and giant radio call-sign numbers painted on them with washable paint.

The New Mexico Army National Guard Aviation Unit helps scoop up water from Cochiti Lake using cable-suspended collapsible buckets that each hold 410 gallons.

From the lake, it’s miles across rugged mountain terrain to a simulated fire scene where the U.S. Forest Service has deployed firefighters.

While many are veterans of joint deployments, some in the Guard have never been deployed to fires — and some ground firefighters have no experience taking advantage of military resources.

This joint training allows crews from the two disparate agencies to practice firefighting tactics together.

“Understanding the language and the capabilities,” said Forest Aviation Officer Jennifer Martynuik. “What are the ground crews up to? What are the capabilities of the helicopter?”

Martynuik feels the joint exercises also helps build working relationships between staff from the two agencies. That helps each understand how to best employ the aid of the other and fight fires efficiently.

“Aircraft take up fuel and flight time,” she said. “And water here, especially in New Mexico is quite a distance away. It comes down to trying to get it targeted in and being effective and efficient.”

High overhead, the crew of a command plane called “Air Attack” coordinates the flow of firefighting air traffic and relays messages and guidance as needed.

In the field, ground crews use everything from radios to signal mirrors and cloth banners to communicate with aircraft crews.

“Effectively communicating with the helicopter about where on the fire line they want that drop to occur and what kind of drop they’re looking for,” said Fire Aviation Officer Justin Jager. “If they’re building fire line with that helicopter drop, or they’re doing a spot drop.”

Winds often blow the plumes of water drops well to the side of a helicopter’s path over the ground. The firefighters on the surface help the crews in the helicopters judge where to best release the water so it hits the place it is needed.

The firefighting mission is a different one for the New Mexico Army National Guard. Although they do a lot of New Mexico rescue and disaster relief flying, the unit is also often deployed to other hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unit commander LTC Daniel Purcell and his troops say they like the opportunity to join others in the fight against wildfires.

“We take a lot of pride in it,” he said. “It’s something else in our toolbox that we can come and support our great state and our country.”

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