The Wisconsin National Guard stands ready to aid the state in the event its services are needed to fight wildfires this spring and summer.
Gov. Scott Walker proclaimed a state of emergency April 21 concerning elevated wildfire conditions in Wisconsin. The executive order authorizes the Wisconsin National Guard, as the state’s first military responder, to assist Wisconsin Emergency Management and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in fire suppression efforts.
“Our first priority is protecting the people of Wisconsin and this executive order helps us control existing wildfires and prevent new ones from starting,” Walker said. “With the Wisconsin National Guard, we’ll have the resources we need to appropriately assist in potential wildfire response and recovery efforts.”
According to Lt. Col. Tim Covington, the Wisconsin National Guard’s director of domestic operations, Guard wildfire support has principally been its precise water drop capability using helicopter buckets, also known as monsoon buckets.
“Of course, we have a full range of other associated services we can provide, depending on the scale of the event and what other resources the local civil authority would [need],” Covington said.
Because readiness is not merely established, but maintained, Wisconsin National Guard helicopter units conducted fire-suppression training last month at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Regular training ensures crews are prepared in the event that the governor calls on the Guard to fulfill its state mission as the state’s first military responder.
“Providing assistance to civilian emergency responders is at the very core of who we are as the National Guard,” Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general said. “We are ready and prepared to serve as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, but we have an equally important mission to serve the citizens of Wisconsin here at home.”
Black Hawk aircraft and crew from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) #2 based in Madison, Wisconsin, worked with Fort McCoy fire and forestry officials and DNR staff for a prescribed burn April 12 at a range on the northern side of the military reservation. Black Hawk crews dipped monsoon buckets into Lost Lake to extinguish the prescribed burn — a practice that eliminates potential wildfire fuel in a controlled setting.
“We are a military training base, have the facilities to support the helicopters, and the land base to do the training,” said James Kerkman, a forestry technician with the Natural Resources Branch of Fort McCoy’s Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Tomblin, who coordinates fire suppression training at AASF #2, said more than 90 percent of available aircrews have completed the training required to conduct fire suppression missions.
“We’ve got more aircrews than buckets,” he said, noting that the facility currently has four monsoon buckets.
Lt. Col. Max Brosig, who commands both AASF #2 and the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment, said it takes about an hour for an air crew to get comfortable working together on a fire suppression mission.
“It’s much more technical, and a higher stress level,” Brosig said.
The helicopter pilot communicates with the DNR fire attack coordinator to determine the location of the fire, the crew stabilizes the water bucket during transit from the source to the fire, and there is always the challenge of understanding the terminology used by different agencies. Tomblin said it typically takes each crew three tries to get proficient dropping water on a specific target.
“That really is battle-focused training, because you get the smoke and the fire and the fatigue and everything else,” Tomblin said. “It’s probably one of the more difficult single tasks that we train on. It’s nothing compared to air assault — that’s the real bread and butter for this unit — but it’s difficult.”
Brosig said the facility conducts fire suppression training in the spring and again in the fall to remain current on qualifications.