Story by Edward Wrinston

Four members of the West Virginia National Guard’s Company C, 1-150th Assault Battalion are in California flying aerial wildland firefighting missions to help combat the massive North Complex and August Complex fires currently burning throughout nine counties in the northern part of the state.

Maj. Evan Dale, Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Kearns, Staff Sgt. Ed Dillon, and Spc. Jack DeAngelo deployed to the region earlier in September and will remain on station through at least Oct. 15, 2020, to assist local and federal officials in their efforts to contain and put out the North Complex Fire which has burned more than 300,000 acres. The crew has also recently been tasked to assist with the August Complex Fire, which to date has consumed more than 949,000 acres.

Dozens of large-scale fires, many caused by lightning strikes and fed by ongoing hot, dry, and windy conditions, continue to burn throughout the western United States including in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho.

“Our mission here is to assist ground crews by conducting precise water drops on target from our helicopters in order to protect and save lives and property,” stated Dale. “We are flying California National Guard MH-60M Blackhawks, the exact models we have back home, and utilize what are called ‘Bambi Buckets’ which can accurately drop up to 660 gallons of water on designated and targeted fire lines per run.”

Bambi Buckets are collapsible buckets designed specifically for aerial firefighting. The buckets, which hang approximately 30 feet below the helicopter, allow pilots to hover over a water source – such as a lake, river, pond, or tank – and lower the bucket into the water to refill it. This allows the crew to operate in remote locations without the need to return to a permanent operating base, thereby reducing the time between successive drops. Once in position, the crew releases the water from the bucket to extinguish or suppress the fire below.

“We typically try to position the bucket around 30 feet above the tree line before releasing our water for maximum precision and effect,” said Dillon. “That means putting the helicopter just 60 feet or so above the tree line and often flames. Getting that close to the fire brings a number of safety concerns – from smoke reducing our flight visibility, to the heat from the fire hurting the flight crew or damaging our equipment, to windy hot air making it hard to hover or even causing an engine to stall out.”

“Each run brings new and unique concerns and dangers that we encounter, so we are constantly focused on completing each mission and returning to base and eventually home safely,” he added.

Additional dangers the crew faces are multiple other aircraft operating in close proximity of their airspace, increased radio communications traffic from both ground and other aerial responders, and the mountainous terrain of the region.

The mere size and scope of the fire is unlike anything the crew have ever witnessed.

“The very first flight we made, we came around the corner to our drop point, and in front of us the whole mountainside was on fire,” said Dillon. “Fifty-foot-high flames everywhere dancing and licking the sky. It was amazing to see – the striking beauty of it mixed with the pure destructive forces. It is truly hard to wrap your head around it.”

The WVNG flight crew will stay deployed through mid-October and potentially longer to continue their assistance to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the official state fire response agency.

“We are proud to be here helping our counterparts in California and super proud of all those in the air and on the ground fighting this overwhelming force of nature,” stated Dale. “Just last year we conducted Bambi Bucket training at Camp Dawson to prepare for this exact type of mission. Now we are putting that training to practical use. The real-world experience we are gaining here will be invaluable should we ever be faced with large wildfires in West Virginia and need to respond at home.”

To date, the North Complex Fire has destroyed more than 2,300 structures including homes and commercial buildings, damaged over 100 more, and has resulted in 15 fatalities. It has been ranked the fifth deadliest fire in modern Californian history, fifth in total size, and sixth most destructive.

The August Complex Fire, while more than triple the size of the North Complex Fire, is in more remote areas of the state. To date, 51 structures have been destroyed due to this fire and no fatalities have been documented.

More than 1,400 personnel including ground and aerial firefighters are currently assigned to combat the North Complex blaze, with an additional 1,600 assigned to the August Complex Fire.