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Military Works With CAL FIRE To Prepare For Aerial Firefighting

Above: A CH 53 Super Stallion Marine helicopter picks up water to do a water drop on May 13, 2010. The maneuver was part of a joint exercise with CalFire on Camp Pendleton.

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Aired 5/13/10

The military in San Diego is building closer ties with civilian firefighting agencies to be ready for the wildfire season. Today Marine helicopter pilots practiced water drops in an aerial firefighting exercise on Camp Pendleton, part of an annual training program that started after the 2007 wildfires.

The military in San Diego is building closer ties with civilian firefighting agencies to be ready for the wild fire season. Marine helicopter pilots practiced water drops in an aerial firefighting exercise on Camp Pendleton, part of an annual training program that started after the 2007 wildfires.

A CH 46 SeaKnight helicopter picks up water from Lake Pulgas on Camp Pendleton in preparation to do a water drop on May 13, 2010. The maneuver was part of a joint exercise with CalFire.
Enlarge this image

Above: A CH 46 SeaKnight helicopter picks up water from Lake Pulgas on Camp Pendleton in preparation to do a water drop on May 13, 2010. The maneuver was part of a joint exercise with CalFire.

The training brought together officials from CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Navy and the Marines to talk through protocols and procedures. The actual water drops were on the final day of a three-day event.

Two Marine helicopters at a time flew in over tiny Lake Pulgas, and hovered just feet above the water, sending up waves of fine spray as they scooped up buckets of water. The CH 46 SeaKnights then rose slowly and followed a civilian spotter helicopter to drop the water exactly where it was needed.

Standing, watching the helicopters swoop round for drop after drop, was Colonel Mike Naylor, operations director for Marine Installations West. Naylor said one problem in the past has been that Marines get trained and then deploy overseas, so this exercise trained a number of pilots.

“We do what’s called hot seat,” Naylor explained, “where they’ll get one guy qualified and then they’ll load another guy in, so we can train multiple pilots with one airplane, just cycle them through, as well as the crew in the back, because the crew in the back are really the guys that have to know when to pull the release cord to let the water go.”

A CH 53 Super Stallion Marine helicopter picks up water to do a water drop as part of a joint aerial firefighting exercise with Cal Fire on Camp Pendleton on May 13, 2010.
Enlarge this image

Above: A CH 53 Super Stallion Marine helicopter picks up water to do a water drop as part of a joint aerial firefighting exercise with Cal Fire on Camp Pendleton on May 13, 2010.

Naylor said the Marine Corps will keep two helicopters at Camp Pendleton with a trained crew on standby during fire season. Navy reserves are also ready year-round to support CAL FIRE if civilian resources are not enough.

John Winder, deputy chief of Tactical Air Operations for CAL FIRE, says his agency focuses on catching fires when they are small, and 95 percent of the fires they fight around the state are 10 acres or less.

“When you have the big major fires and they are burning tens of thousands of acres then we have to go outside and get assistance and that’s when the military comes into play,” said Winder.

Winder says the Operating Plan means military resources should be identified within four to 12 hours after the initial call for help is made.

The Department of Defense may only provide emergency work to “save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate great property damage.” This is laid out in the Stafford Act.

The Operating Plan says when those conditions are met, and time does not permit approval through command channels, military commanders are authorized to take necessary action to respond. Those actions must then be reported up the chain of command to the Secretary of Defense.

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