APRIL 26, 2016, DARIÉN PROVINCE, Panama – Members of Joint Task Force-Bravo partnered with Panamanian Public Forces to contain multiple life-threatening wildfires here, April 17 and 18.
The fires, which are believed to have started April 4, grew exponentially, prompting the Government of Panama, via the U.S. Embassy in Panama, to request an aerial support package from JTF-B consisting of aircraft from the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, to help contain the blazes.
Approximately 45,000 people reside in the Darién Province, so stopping the spread of the fire from the undeveloped swampland and forests to residential areas was of utmost importance.
“There are populated areas out there where hundreds of fires were burning around, and I think we kept some of them at bay,” said U.S. Army Capt. Eric Rathbun, 1-228th Aviation Regiment, Alpha Company commander. “We dropped approximately 100,000 gallons of water between our package of one CH-47 (Chinook) and two UH-60 (Blackhawks).”
Panamanian Servicio Nacional Aeronaval Col. Gustavo Perez, chief of firefighting operations in the Darién province, said the three ‘birds’ the 1-228th Aviation brought — along with their Bambi Buckets which were refilled in the area’s many bodies of water after each pass and dump — were ideal for this operation because of their ability to access areas unreachable by land firefighting crews and the volume of water each aircraft’s Bambi Bucket can drop on a single pass.
“JTF-B forces have come to Panama before, but this was the first time I’ve worked with them for (a fire-fighting operation),” said Perez. “It was a really good opportunity to work together, and I want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped us for all your hard work.”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Moore, 1-228th AVN commander, expanded on the Panamanian colonel’s comments about developing a strong working relationship between the two forces.
“This was definitely a combined effort with JTF-B working in support of Panamanian forces. We were just the guys out here supporting their effort and assisting them with the fires,” Moore said. “We learned a great deal about coordinating with Panamanian forces and doing crisis-action planning with them. The team did an outstanding job and it definitely was a combined effort in both the planning and execution.”
The Panamanian firefighting operation comes less than a month after the 1-228th Aviation Regiment sent air assets to help contain a fire near the town of Tela, Honduras.
“JTF-B has been in the Central American region for a very long time. There was a time when it was involved in supporting the fight against communism,” said John Feeley, U.S. Ambassador to Panama. “If you take a look at what JTF-B’s mission is today, it is directly in support of providing better lives for Central Americans. Whether it’s disaster relief, fighting criminal organizations, counter narcotics, logistics, or training with the partner nations of Central America, JTF-B is a jewel in the crown of the American military presence in Latin America.”
The ambassador concluded, “I hope we can count on them for a long time to come.”