JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (Army News Service, July 7, 2015) – Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and aircrews, from the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, have been dropping hundreds of buckets of water on fires throughout Alaska since June 14.
Despite the forecast of rain in some areas, crews from the 207th, based out of Bryant Army Airfield, Anchorage, will likely be on standby or on mission over the Independence Day weekend and beyond, said Lt. Col. Robert Kurtz, the Alaska Army National Guard state aviation officer.
Besides fighting fires, the 207th is conducting other training and operations simultaneously, he added.
This year’s fire season is on track to becoming possibly the worst on record, said Tim Mowry, public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.
From June 14 to July 2, the 207th has dedicated two UH-60s to the firefighting missions, logging 132 flight hours and 1,103 bucket missions for a total of 878,200 gallons of water dropped, Kurtz said. Each bucket holds about 700 to 900 gallons of water.
The state requested assistance from the 207th at about 5 p.m., June 14, and within just two hours the helicopters were headed toward Willow’s Sockeye Fire north of Anchorage, Kurtz said.
The mission shifted to the Kenai Peninsula, June 17, where several fires erupted from lightning strikes, he said.
Due to the location and terrain, the Black Hawks were able to reach areas, which ground crews could not access, he continued.
“We were the first air assets requested as part of the initial attack from the air supporting ground fire crews and overall the incident commander’s operational plans to handle the Stetson Creek Fire,” which followed Willow’s Sockeye Fire, Kurtz said. “Our aircrews had to determine where to drop water, and we were solely responsible out there during the initial effort.”
Normally, the location for making the drops is determined by the incident commander on the ground, who is from one of the state or local firefighting services, Mowry said.
The Stetson Creek Fire was located about 1.5 miles south of the Sterling Highway between Russian River and Cooper Creek, according to the Incident Information System website, or InciWeb.
Other fires followed, including the Tok Fire, 200 miles southeast of Fairbanks, just 93 miles from Canada. That fire started June 20 and continues, covering 1,800 acres. The 207th has been active there. As of July 3, light rain is falling, but warmer, drier weather is in the forecast, according to InciWeb.
The 207th’s pilots and crew were also ranging far from home, flying some 350 miles away to the northern interior near Fairbanks, Kurtz said.
Latest efforts of the 207th have taken them more than 350 miles north of their airfield to the Anaconda Creek and Chena Hot Springs Fires, 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Kurtz said. That fire is 1,092 acres and 10 percent contained, but is expected to grow the week of July 6, when warmer, dryer air will move in, according to InciWeb.
The two Black Hawks dedicated to the effort are getting a workout.
A normal duty for pilots and crew is 12-hour days for three or four days, Kurtz said. Then, a new crew is brought in, and, if the helicopter needs maintenance, it is swapped out as well.
Occasionally, the crew is authorized “by exception” to exceed the 12-hour rule if lives or property are in imminent danger. This actually happened at the Anaconda Creek Fire. Kurtz didn’t have all the details of that incident immediately available, “but they wouldn’t have called us back unless they really needed us.”
Alaska has “a very fire-prone landscape, especially this time of year,” Mowry said. The normal fire seasons are April and May, when most fires are human-caused, usually from campfires or debris burning in yards that get out of control.
The second season is June and July, when the majority of fires are lightning started, he said. This year has been particularly dry, with low snowfalls and not much spring rain so that set things up.
Add to that a lot of lightning strikes, he said. As of now, more than 300 fires throughout the state are burning. That’s much higher than usual.
So far this year, there have been 610 fires, 334 caused by lightning and the rest deemed to be human-caused.
Total acreage burned for the year currently is 1.6 million. The record for a single year was 6.6 million acres, but this year’s fire season is far from over and “we’re on pace to possibly break that record,” Mowry said.
The fires are not in any one particular place, but the largest tend to be east and west of Fairbanks, south of Anchorage and in the western and southwestern portions of the state’s interior, he said.
This year’s fires also stand out from other years, in that a large number have and are occurring near populated areas like Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Willow’s Sockeye Fire resulted in 55 homes destroyed. The Card Street Fire, south of Anchorage, resulted in the loss of six homes. “That’s very unusual for Alaska,” Mowry said.
Fires are not all undesirable, he said. They are “a naturally occurring part of natural landscape.” To differentiate between the risk levels to people, property, infrastructure and the environment, the state has developed a map of “protection zones,” ranging from critical, full, modified and limited with critical meaning locations where fires must be battled with the greatest urgency and limited being remote areas where fires have always occurred and where risks are low.
“In many limited suppression zones, we’re just monitoring [the fires] and if they don’t threaten anything, we typically let them go,” Mowry said. Besides that, “we don’t have the resources and finances” to go after every single fire.
Since most of Alaska has no roads, firefighting efforts hinge on helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and, where applicable, boats, he said. That’s why the Guard’s contributions have been so valuable. “Rapid aerial response is a big deal here.”
Fighting fires in Alaska is a team effort, Mowry said. UH-60 pilots work with the incident commander and other aircraft in the area to coordinate movements and water drops.
Drop locations depend on many factors, he said, such as direction of the leading edge of the fire, efforts to backburn areas, steering the fire to natural barriers like lakes and areas with less tinder, threats to homes and infrastructure and so on.
The water dropped from the UH-60s is used to extinguish fires, while retardant, dropped from fixed-wing aircraft, is used for creating fire breaks.
Besides the Guard, Mowry credits the Air Force with helping airlift 127,000 pounds of firefighting equipment to a warehouse where it was needed. The Air National Guard also provides fixed-wing support for fire suppression.
The two primary state firefighting agencies, he said, are his own Division of Forestry and the Alaska Fire Service, which is part of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. Forestry tends to take the lead on “roaded areas” and BLM in remote areas, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule and there’s plenty of fires to go around.
Both agencies have their own aircraft and contract additional aircraft when needed, which is the case currently, he said. Besides spraying fire retardant, the fixed-wing aircraft can skim lakes and scoop water in flight.
A third agency that assists, but on a smaller scale, is the U.S. Forest Service, Mowery said.
Besides assets in-state, Alaska has reciprocal agreements with Canada and the lower 48 states, particularly states in the Northwest, under the so-called “Northwest Compact.” For example, smoke jumpers are here from British Columbia and water scoopers are on duty from Alberta, he said.
Help from those areas currently is being used. Alaska has helped them in the past, he added. Last year, Alaskans assisted in Canada’s Northwest Territories and in the lower 48 states as well, since last summer was particularly wet in the state.
Despite some rain in the forecast this weekend, Mowry said a high-pressure ridge is building and portions of the state will keep burning. It doesn’t take long for fires to start and intensify when temperatures go into the 80s and the wind picks up. It will take a lot of rain just to put out the current fires, the amount needed not being expected.
Even as fires rage throughout Alaska, Soldiers of the 207th are engaged in other activities as well, Kurtz said.
Guard Soldiers have been training with active-duty Soldiers on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, doing paradrops, VIP missions, cargo and air movements, hoists and slingloads, he said. Just a few days ago, the 207th participated with them in air insertions. They also provided a medevac for a Soldier, who received minor injuries during a training exercise.
Throughout the past decade or so, companies from the 207th deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. Even when they’re not in combat, the Soldiers are especially resilient.
They have to be, Kurtz said, with extremes in weather, mountainous terrain, long distances and remote areas that need to be accessed and days in summer when the sun doesn’t set and winter days when the sun doesn’t rise.
FROM FIRE TO ICE
The 207th also participated in the Colony Glacier recovery mission, Kurtz said.
In 1952, an Air Force C-124 Globemaster II, carrying 52 passengers and crew, crashed into that glacier just 40 miles from JBER. Weather was a factor in that crash that killed all aboard, officials said. Recovery efforts were hampered because a massive winter storm hit the area, covering the debris and remains before rescuers could arrive.
A UH-60 pilot from the 207th spotted the debris and Guard Soldiers soon arrived to examine the site, June 9, 2012. Since then, Kurtz said, every summer Alaska Command and Alaska National Guard personnel have returned to the site to recover the widely scattered remains, which move continuously every year as the glacier slides toward the sea. Guard personnel were on site in June of this year.
Thus far, 17 of the 52 Airmen have been identified and returned home, so a lot more work remains.