Fire-Generated Winds Pose Hazards to National Guard Efforts to Fight Wildfires

Army National Guard Specialist Gonzalez mans a checkpoint as the Carr Fire burns in Redding, Calif., on Saturday, July 28, 2018.  (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Army National Guard Specialist Gonzalez mans a checkpoint as the Carr Fire burns in Redding, Calif., on Saturday, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The scope and intensity of the California wildfires can create their own violent wind and weather systems and at times hamper firefighting efforts, California National Guard officials said Wednesday.

"They're strong enough to actually pull us down to the ground" if his bucket-carrying helicopter gets too close, Army National Guard Sgt. Julian Ross, a helicopter pilot, said of the downdrafts triggered by fires that have ravaged wide swaths of the state.

"There are some dangers," he said, including poor visibility in the towering plumes of smoke coursing up from the forest floor.

The phenomenon has been called a "firenado" or "fire whirl," where intense rising heat combines with turbulent winds to create whirling eddies of air and smoke.

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. James Brown, of the 149th Intelligence Squadron, said the smoke and winds generated by the fires also have occasionally interfered with operations of the Guard's MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, which has provided vital reconnaissance for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

The fires have also affected operations of fixed-wing aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules using Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS) to drop water and retardants on the fires, Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy adjutant general of the California Military Department, said in a video briefing from California to the Pentagon.

About 2,000 California National Guard personnel have been mobilized thus far for the fires that began in early July; 969 are currently serving for a period of about 30 days, Beevers said.

The National Guard personnel were joined earlier this week by about 200 active-duty soldiers from the 14th Engineer Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

The JBLM soldiers are engaged in clearing brush and digging trenches in an effort to contain a fire north of San Francisco, known as the Mendocino Complex fire, considered to be the largest in state history.

"We don't anticipate calling up additional soldiers and airmen" for the current spate of fires, Beevers said, but noted that the wildfire season began earlier than usual this year.

"It's usually later in the summer or early fall," he said, but "for the last four or five years, the fires have been getting bigger and burning more erratically."

To combat the fires, the California National Guard is providing nine UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, two CH-47 Chinook helicopters, one UH-72 Lakota helicopter, a C-12 Huron, one MQ-9 Reaper, one RC-26 Metroliner, one HH-60 Pave Hawk Rescue/Medical Evacuation Aircraft, and four MAFFS.

The California National Guard is also providing more than 100 vehicles and military police to aid in traffic control.

In Oregon, about 400 National Guard personnel were activated July 20 to aid firefighting efforts in that state.

The Oregon National Guard is providing two Chinooks, one HH-60 and one Lakota for air support, 17 Light Medium Tactical Vehicles, 27 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, five dump trucks, eight vans for transportation support, three Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks for logistical support, and personnel to provide traffic assistance.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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