July 4, 2008

North Dakota Helicopter Heads to California Wildfires



Early Thursday morning, five North Dakota National Guard soldiers took off for California.

Disneyland, surfing and other Golden State amenities won't be on the agenda - the soldiers have taken a UH-60 Black Hawk to help fight California wildfires.

Gov. John Hoeven on Thursday approved a request from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to send the National Guard helicopter to join other states in assisting with California's fire problems.

"We want to help the people of California during this difficult time," Hoeven said in a statement. "We're also proud of our National Guard members, who were able to mobilize and launch the Black Hawk within 24 hours of the request, which is a good measure of their preparedness."

National Guard Maj. Dave Hall did not know which of the more than 1,000 fires across California the three pilots and two crew members would be heading for.

"What they'll end up doing in this situation is reporting to an aviation station near Sacramento," he said.

There, they were to receive instructions on where they were going and what they needed to do.

The crew has a 640-gallon bucket with them, which it will use to dip water from a holding tank or water source, Hall said. He said the soldiers will take commands from authorities in California on what they need to do, whether it be making wet lines or using the water to put out fires.

North Dakota will help California through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is a mutual-aid partnership agreement that allows governors to send resources to help out in states where other governors have declared emergencies.

North Dakota, whose deployment costs will be reimbursed by the EMAC, joins about 40 other states across the country who have sent people and equipment to California.

Hall said the North Dakota National Guard frequently helps out at disasters in other states. In some places, overseas deployments have depleted local resources, making assistance from other states vital in homeland emergencies.

According to a Thursday morning report from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, North Dakota's Black Hawk will join at least 11 other helicopters with water-dropping abilities in fighting the fires, as well as a number of smaller helicopters with other duties.

Hall said the "congested airspace" will necessitate that the crew has a "large degree of situational awareness." The techniques and procedures used in fighting the fires will be similar to those used by the experience crew in fighting North Dakota fires, but the response is on a much larger scale, he said.

"I think they're absolutely well prepped," he said, adding that the pilots are some of the most experienced in North Dakota.

The mountains of northern California will be a different scene than the flat plains of North Dakota.

"It'll be a new environment for them,"Hall said.

He said the pilots have mountain qualification and are skilled in "power management." Hall explained that the pilots know how to determine how much water the helicopter can handle in higher altitudes and higher temperatures.

North Dakota National Guard members have responded to emergencies outside the state before, though California is one of the longest distances they've gone, Hall said. He said soldiers went to the Mexican border as part of Operation Jump Start in one of the Guard's other long trips.

"While it's difficult to watch the devastation these fires have wreaked in California, we're glad we're able to assist in saving lives and property by helping to control the fires," Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota's adjutant general, said in a statement. "This is part of the Guard's commitment to helping our community, state and country. Our pilots and crew chiefs fought fires in western North Dakota earlier this year, and now they extend their knowledge, skills and abilities to help others in need.

(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or [email protected])

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