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West Jordan Journal

Utah National Guard takes to the skies to fight California wildfires

Sep 29, 2020 02:19PM ● By Alison Brimley

As of Sept. 14, California wildfires had burned an estimated 3.2 million acres, an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

As unprecedented wildfires raged in California at the end of August, the Utah National Guard was ready to offer what assistance it could. 

When guard members answered the call to assist in California, the National Guard’s 97th Aviation Troop Command, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment was acting on a request from California through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. The EMAC is a mutual-aid agreement between states, coordinated through state emergency management agencies. The compact means that “any state can request support from other states if they need it,” said Lt. Colonel Jeremy Tannahill, who led the Utah detachment supporting Californians in their fight against wildfires. “For instance, if Utah had an earthquake, and our forces couldn’t respond appropriately, forces from other states might be called in.”

The Utah detachment arrived in California with two UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters and nine soldiers. After departing Aug. 27 from the Army Aviation Support Facility in West Jordan, the soldiers participated in two days of training with an expert forest service firefighter in California. For the next week, they staged out of a helibase in Red Bluff, California (about 100 miles north of Sacramento). Each day, they flew the helicopters from a small reservoir, where they would fill up with 600 gallons of water, which they would transport to a designated location and dump it on the fire. They flew for 14 hours per day. 

The object of the mission was not so much to eradicate the fire as it was to cool down the fire so that ground crews could fight it more effectively, said Tannahill. Their aim was to “buy time” for people on the ground. Tannahill said they were able to save at least one cabin and one dozer driver. 

Though wildfire fighting is inherently dangerous, Tannahill said he and his crew never felt their lives were in imminent danger. “We’re very well trained,” he said. “We are risk-averse enough to not put ourselves in a situation when we’re in jeopardy. We are flying helicopters at the edge of their limits and at the edge of our limits as pilots. But we know what we’re doing. And command did a great job at getting us the resources we needed.”

Though the Utah detachment was initially booked for 14 days, Tannahill reported they “started to get a handle on the fires” after only eight days and were able to return home early. “I don’t know the overall strategy,” he said. His crew was playing a small part in a much larger plan. 

What stands out in Tannahill’s mind, though, was not the drama or the danger of the mission, but the camaraderie and support of the crew he worked with. Some canceled family vacations when the call came in from California. One has missed the opportunity to spend the last four holidays with family for his training. 

“It amazes me every time how willing and ready our national guard soldiers are to stand up and serve,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a lot of years, and it blows my mind every time.”