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MCAS Miramar Flight Crews Help Fight East County Wildfires

For the first time, helicopters from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Camp Pendleton are assisting Cal Fire to fight the wildfires burning in East County.

Late Wednesday morning, flight crews from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar answered a call from Cal Fire to join in the effort to subdue the Vallecito Fires.

Marine Corps helicopter fire fighting training, Camp Pendleton, May 13th, 2010
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Above: Marine Corps helicopter fire fighting training, Camp Pendleton, May 13th, 2010

The Navy and National Guard have long trained with Cal Fire. But in the 2007 wildfires, Marine Corps air power took several days to mobilize – while homes burned - because of lack of coordination.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said since then, Cal Fire and the Marine Corps have streamlined communications and trained together every year.

“The biggest thing is the communication with each other,“ Hutchinson said. “While we know that these are experienced pilots that go into battle all the time, integrating safely into a fire situation with smoke and fire and learning how to drop those buckets into specific areas is a challenge, and those trainings we do throughout the year are extremely valuable.”

Hutchinson said the most recent training between Cal Fire and the Marine Corps was in May. She said joint trainings are easier now that the Marine Corps is not so tied up in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Cal Fire requested Marine Super Stallion and Sea Knight helicopters to help transport firefighters from base camp, and perform water drops.

The Navy also provided three MH -60 sea combat helicopters today to help with water drops.

The fires -- collectively known as the Vallecito Lightning Complex -- scorched almost 10,000 acres, forced at least 4,000 evacuations and wracked up $2 million in costs as of Wednesday morning, according to Cal Fire.

The Vallecito Lightning Complex wildfires on August 13, 2012.
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Above: The Vallecito Lightning Complex wildfires on August 13, 2012.

The northern San Diego USMC base was sending eight helicopters -- CH-53 Super Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knights -- to help shuttle personnel to the fire lines and make water drops.

The CH-53s belong to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadrons 462, 465 and 466, Marine Aircraft Group 16, and are stationed at MCAS Miramar. The CH-46s belong to Marine Medium Helicopter Training Squadron 164, Marine Aircraft Group 39, based at Camp Pendleton.

The first of the blazes was the Vallecito Fire, which charred 519 acres southeast of Julian since around 8 p.m. Sunday and was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported.

The three other fires -- the Wilson, Stewart and Cooper fires -- each erupted Monday afternoon, scorching ground northeast of Julian, near Scissors Crossing. Cal Fire reported that the Wilson Fire burned 5,000 acres and was 5 percent contained as of this morning; the Stewart Fire blackened 3,800 acres, with zero percent containment; and the Cooper Fire burned over only three acres and was 100 percent contained.

The fifth fire -- the Wynola Fire -- broke out Tuesday and scorched three acres in the Wynola area. It was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported.

Authorities said the Wilson and Stewart fires could merge Wednesday.

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