They arrived at the Flagler County Airport just before noon on Wednesday, three Florida Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with three crews of four guardsmen each (and one woman crew chief), ready to do battle against Flagler County’s fires. It was an immediate display of the meaning of Florida’s state of emergency: the National Guard is now in the service of the state’s emergency management operations, the ultimate authority over statewide firefighting.
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Robert Duty made a prediction. “They’ll be up today,” the Florida Division of Forestry’s air tactical coordinator, said soon after the crews’ arrival. “One of the problems is that these fires haven’t all completely burned into our control lines, and what happens is, these fires cook all night and all morning and then when the humidity drops the winds come out from seabreeze they take off and make a run toward the control lines. At that time one of the tactics is to cool it down with air suppression or helicopters.”
Proving him right, about three hours later, the Guard’s crews were in the air, dumping their 780 gallons of water—each—on several break-outs that overran fire lines at the Espanola blaze, now nearing 5,000 acres, in what Division of Forestry spokesman Todd Schroeder described as “a big air show.” The Black Hawks were joined by two larger tankers, each dropping 3,000 gallons at a shot, on the Espanola fire. The Black Hawks also flew to the new fire just across the county line with Volusia, near the intersection of State Road 40 and State Road 11. They flew eight sorties in all, logging in eight hours of flight time.
The crews, from Brooksville-based 244th Aviation Support Battalion, will be in Flagler County on an open-ended mission, as needed.
“The Florida Army National Guard is going to increase the ability of the local resources to protect structures and assist in suppressing this wild land-fire,” Duty said.
Twenty minutes after they touched down Wednesday morning, the 12 crew members, led by Lt. Col. Ben Lacy, a state aviation officer for the guard, sat down with Duty and staff from Flagler County’s emergency and fire rescue operations for a nearly hour-long briefing on the situation on the ground here. Duty filled in the crews on communications frequencies, who’s going to be working on the ground with whom, how many shifts are going to be dispatched, in what locations, and other tactical and strategic details ensuring that the increasingly complex operation was also seamlessly coordinated.
“We are here to help and we will do whatever we’re asked to do,” lacy said. “Our plan is obviously to do it safely. The safety of the ground personnel as well as their crews is paramount, so we’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that, and the way to do that is an open line, or good two-way communication between the support personnel on the ground, other folks that are there, as well as us.”
The 780-gallon water capacity of the Bambi Buckets, as the trademark orange buckets are known, are more than three times the capacity of the bucket that the county’s Fire Flight helicopter flies—though that bucket has been used quite effectively as well, as it was on Wednesday afternoon, helping to save homes from a new fire in Seminole Woods. The 780-gallong buckets mean the helicopters are lugging between 6,500 and 7,000 pounds of water beneath them. On the Espanola fire, they filling the buckets from a pond nearby.
Keep in mind, the fact that far larger capacities to dump water from the air are on scene doesn’t mean that firefighters necessarily have a greater capacity to put out fires with those resources. That’s not the helicopters’ primary aim.
“The ground troops would request helicopter support and we would be dispatching the Florida National Guard out of the Flagler County Airport,” Duty says. The water-dumping from the air, he says, puts the water “directly on the fire, which cools the fire, knocks it down, and gives the ground troops a safer environment to work in. We don’t put the fire out with aviation resources, we just retard its spread.” That enables firefighters on the ground to more safely dig firelines, for example.
The helicopters can fly for up to two hours before having to refuel. They have a fueling capacity of 360 gallons. That refueling is taking place at the county airport (which is good news for the airport). Four crew members fly each helicopter: two pilots up front, and the crew chief and another crew member in back of the helicopter, who help with “obstacle avoidance” and guidance with water drops.
The three helicopter crews were scheduled to make the 30 to 40-minute flight back to Brooksville at day’s end. They didn’t do so Wednesday evening because of poor visibility.
Most of these members of the guard are taking time off from their regular day jobs—and often burning through vacation time, or taking time without pay from their regular jobs, though they get military pay—to be here. “We have found that when it comes to saving life, limb or personal property because of wild fires,” Lacy said, “most civilian employers are pretty sympathetic when their employee is a national guardsman who goes out to do things for the citizens.”
The Black Hawks at Flagler County Airport: Photo Gallery