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Aerial firefighting exercise unites federal and state agencies

Lance Cpl. Daniel Boothe

Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

Federal and state fire agencies remain ready to respond after local military and civilian fire personnel completed their third annual aerial firefighting drill at Camp Pendleton, May 13.

Approximately 34 emergency service personnel and several aircraft from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Naval Air Station North Island and California’s Department of Fire and Forestry Protection (CAL FIRE) extinguished simulated fires on base by coordinating helicopter water drops.

“The importance of exercises cannot be overstated,” said Mathew Bettenhausen, secretary, California Emergency Management Agency. “The lessons learned here are necessary to keep improving response and ultimately save lives and property.”

After wildfires devastated Southern California in 2007, federal and state fire officials developed and signed an operating plan that now mandates the annual exercise.

The joint aerial effort is expected to close any gaps in procedures and remedy the lack of training between federal and state agencies exposed by the unforgettable blaze.

“In 2007, there were a handful of aircraft available on base, but without properly trained personnel, a specific activation process, or even contact procedures, we couldn’t use them,” said Tom P. Humann, forestry fire pilot with CAL FIRE, who helped design the annual aerial fire drill.

“The result was some confusion, response delays, unused buckets, and a lack of coordination amongst flight crews. This training effort takes steps to address each of these issues,” added Humann, former CAL FIRE military program coordinator.

During the exercise, helicopters scooped as much as 900 gallons of water on each pass at the base’s Las Pulgas Lake, with what firefighters refer to as “Bambi buckets,” to drop on designated targets. The primary purpose of water-dropping is not necessarily to extinguish the flames as much as it is to assist ground-based firefighters to safely contain the blaze.

“The main purpose of the training was to practice the planning and execution of the actual operating plan,” said Maj. Steven R. Christman, operations action officer, Marine Corps Installations West. “The exercise clarifies how the armed forces works together with civilian agencies in a time of crisis with our assets and personnel, and allows us to apply these principles during actual flight operations.”

According to CAL FIRE officials, a majority of fires encountered by the agency are extinguished before they have the opportunity to surge out of control. The organization reports that nearly 95 percent of all fires caught by the agency are kept to 10 acres or less.

“When you have the big major fires and they are burning tens of thousands of acres, then we have to go outside and get assistance and that’s when the military comes into play,” said John Winder, deputy chief for CAL FIRE’s Tactical Air Operations.

The joint aerial exercise’s official operation plan mandates that military resources should be identified within four to 12 hours after the initial call for help is made.

According to the Stafford Act, which regulates military involvement and emergency response, the Department of Defense may only respond to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate great property damage.

Military commanders are, however, authorized to take necessary action to respond when those conditions are met and time does not permit approval through command channels, states the aerial exercise’s operating plan. Those actions must then be reported up the proper chain of command, all the way to the Secretary of Defense.

Base officials announced that the Marine Corps will keep two helicopters at Camp Pendleton with a trained crew on standby during this fire season. The Navy reserves will also remain ready throughout the year to support any civilian fire agency with insufficient available assets.

“More practice for the aircrews has lead to improvements in safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of fire suppression,” said Humann, a California-native who also served as a Marine helicopter pilot. “In addition, the improved coordination between agencies has resulted in quicker activation times and easier transitions to joint operations.”

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