Inside the Gates: When the call comes in, National Guard is ready to help fight Alaska wildfires
As firefighters tangle with wildfires across Alaska, the Alaska Army National Guard is on standby waiting to help when the call for assistance comes in.
"We operate under immediate response," Alaska Army National Guard Commander of the 207th Aviation Battalion Lt. Col. Michelle Edwards said. "So, it is when there's no other assets in state."
Despite possessing the state's largest fleet of rotary-wing aircraft, the Army National Guard is under a non-compete clause where they can't compete against civilian workers and companies.
"We are here for the state when needed if there are not any other assets available," Edwards said. "Or, if they are working to get other assets up from the Lower 48, especially for fires. It can take several days."
The Alaska Army National Guard works with the State Division of Forestry to help determine what is available in the state and where the guard can be used. For the time being, the guard is on stand-by to help with the Swan Lake and McKinley fires.
"We were utilized on Monday for the McKinley Fire," Edwards said. "We flew for nine and a half hours, with two UH-60 Black Hawks. Each aircraft had a water bucket, they can carry about 700 gallons per drop. So we dropped just under 600,000 gallons of water on Monday."
Battling fires from the air is far more complicated than just taking off and dumping water on flames. To help coordinate, Ty Miller with the Division of Forestry from Fairbanks is brought in to act as a liaison between DOF and the National Guard. He says it helps having someone who can decipher the military and fire lingo for each side.
According to Miller, one of the biggest obstacles in fighting large fires is the first 72 hours.
"We have to order up a lot of equipment to get involved with that incident," Miller said. "These guys, we can make a phone call and [the National Guard] are there until all the other equipment arrives to start working on the fire."
With Miller on-site, the National Guard can be ordered without a manager or liaison. Any aerial attack requires supervision for the air attack platform — someone who is overhead supervising the operation.
With Miller onboard, the National Guard can operate independently with Miller calling the shots.
The National Guard is always on stand by. The last time they were called to help with the fires was on Monday and they were close on Thursday with a call that sent them to Talkeetna but ultimately turned away with their Bambi Buckets out.
As disappointing as being turned away is, it's part of the job and part of always being ready.
"We're Alaskans," Lt. Col. Edwards said. "We want to be here and serve the citizens of our state and of our community. Our members of our community, members of our organization, their homes have been threatened by the fires. As you know, you'd want to be able to go out and help your family and friends as much as you can. That's one of the best parts of being in the guard. Being available to support the state when needed."
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