Helicopter Pilots Train at Camp Pendleton to Quench Wild Blazes

Helicopter Pilots Train at Camp Pendleton to Quench Wild Blazes

13 May 2011

published by http://sanclemente.patch.com

USA — A wildfire eats and breathes oxygen, destroying everything in its path. The job of our firefighters is to take control of a seemingly uncontrollable, living monster and stop it from destroying.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the men and women of the Marine Corps know exactly what the potential for devastation can be if a wildfire isn’t stopped. That’s why Thursday at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps, The Navy, CAL FIRE and other agencies held an aerial firefighting exercise to hone their skills in dropping water from the sky, a crucial tactic in quenching wilderness blazes.

A model H 60 helicopter–the same model Marines say was used in the capture of Osama Bin Laden–swooped in, carrying a 660-gallon bucket of water.

The H 60, along with a twin rotor CH 46, a CH 53 carrying a 900-gallon bucket and a Milco D-500 serving as the eyes in the sky, dropped in over a small lake, filled their buckets with water and dropped them on a simulated fire at a specified location on Camp Pendleton.

The rotors spinning over the lake sprayed water with hurricane-like force in the faces of all those observing as the helicopters climbed back into the air for target practice.

“There’s risk involved every time you go up in a helicopter,” said forestry department firefighter Deputy Chief John Winder. “You train like you fight: without consideration.”

Because southern California wildfires tend to be so large-scale and happen in such unique terrain, coordination between local fire departments and the Marine Corps is extremely important, officials said. The Marines and local agencies started a formal training relationship in 2008.

“Developing that relationship over four or five years between military and fire has come a long way,” CAL FIRE Captain Jack Wethey said. “Communications, being able to talk to one another, training with pilots establishes command and control of a mission.”

When CAL FIRE has exhausted all of its resources–like during the 2003 Cedar Fires, considered the worst any of the firefighters had seen–the agency has the ability to call on the Marines for back up.

A wilderness blaze first needs to be classified a disaster for CAL FIRE to receive the additional help, but with all the grasses and chaparral in Southern California ready to burn, it doesn’t take much for a fire to get out of control.

“Peak events like wind and high temperatures lead to fires,” said CAL FIRE Paramedic Tom Piranio, who also serves as a medic during the Baja 1000 off-road races. “The ‘perfect storm’ event of high temperatures, low humidity and wind consumes all of our resources, so we need the help of the military.”

Piranio further explained that, though this year’s rainy season could decrease the risk of wildfires, it also creates more growth. Wind and heat following a rainy season can create a worse fire conditions for next year.

First responder helicopter pilots also are responsible for some rescues.

“Rescues are challenging,” said Gene Palos who has been a helicopter pilot with the San Diego Sheriff’s department for 14 years. “People are always getting themselves stuck in places it is hard to get out of. It’s challenging, yet satisfying to save them.”

The aerial training Thursday marked the third and final day of the multi organizational fire training.

Pictured is a CH 46 with Milco D 500. May 12, 2011 at Camp Pendleton, the Marines, CAL FIRE and other agencies practiced aerial firefighting.

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