Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado —
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Phil Geraci left the active-duty Army in January 2018. He said he joined the Colorado National Guard intending, and hoping, to use his skills as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot in real-world operations.
"I wanted to serve. I wanted to keep flying," Geraci said. "I knew that the CONG had actual aviation missions, between firefighting and search and rescue, and I wanted to be a part of that."
His opportunity to serve quickly arrived.
Geraci was part of Joint Task Force Aviation, a response force package comprised of helicopters, fire trucks, a forward air refueling point, and Soldiers from the Colorado Army National Guard. This task force acted as part of a larger CONG effort supporting local agencies fighting the Spring Fire in Colorado's Costilla and Huerfano counties.
The Spring Fire burned nearly 110,000 acres and ranks as the third largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Nearly 150 CONG Soldiers and Airmen were activated during the Spring Fire from July 1-13. Participating units included: 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 238th General Support Aviation Regiment, and 140th Security Forces Squadron, all from Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado; the 233rd Security Forces Squadron, from Greeley Air National Guard Base, Greeley, Colorado; the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colorado; the 193rd Military Police Battalion and 220th Military Police Company, both based in Denver; the 188th Forward Support Company, from Pueblo, Colorado; and, the 217th Space Company, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Spring Fire
The Spring Fire ignited late June in Costilla County, between Fort Garland and La Veta. The fire rapidly expanded due to the dry conditions and winds in the high country. Local resources, already stretched thin fighting other fires in the region, were quickly exhausted. The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center requested CONG resources via the State Emergency Operations Center to assist the Incident Management Teams throughout the state with a standby search and rescue helicopter. Requests from the affected counties followed shortly after to support aerial firefighting, security, and traffic control points.
"The CONG initially sent military police Soldiers and security forces Airmen to support Huerfano County by providing traffic control points and to assist local law enforcement patrol and secure the evacuated areas," U.S. Army Maj. Troy Brown, who served as the military liaison to the Spring Fire incident commander, said.
The need for CONG aviation assets soon became apparent as national assets were being balanced between fighting wildfires in Colorado and California. CONG aircraft provided support during gap times.
"There were many fires going on in the region," said Carolyn Blatz, branch director of Air Operations, Rocky Mountain Black Incident Management Team. "Sometimes it's hard to get civilian aircraft, and that's where the National Guard comes in. They are very helpful to us and vital to filling that void."
COARNG aircrews and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters equipped with aerial water buckets arrived July 2, and conducted firefighting operations through July 10.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Edwin Chapin, maintenance test pilot with 2-238th, has participated in multiple firefighting operations in Colorado since 2008.
"Once you're called upon, there's no greater sense of pride and accomplishment," Chapin said. "It does the heart, mind, body and soul good to know that our training works in real-life operations."
The Spring Fire expanded over more than 100,000 acres of dense, high-elevation land in Southern Colorado's Sangre De Cristo mountain range, destroying more than 145 homes. National Guard aviation assets provided two kinds of support – standby for search and rescue and firefighting water drops. The aircrews dropped about 462 buckets of water, spanning nearly 60 flight hours.
According to Chapin, the water dip site for the Spring Fire was located at an elevation of approximately 9,100 feet. He said the water drops occurred at elevations upward of 9,600 feet. Each water bucket holds 500 hundred gallons and weighs approximately 4,000 pounds.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Todd Stansbury, commander, 2-135th and Task Force-Aviation, said this poses numerous challenges for the pilots and aircraft.
"With water drops, we're typically flying at high altitude with extreme weight," said Stansbury. "Every time we do a dip, we are at the maximum limit of our power. We are using maximum power in a mountainous environment, which takes supreme skill. This is probably some of the most dangerous and challenging flying we do."
Chapin explained the challenges of flying in what he called "less-dense air."
"As we came up from a dip, if our rotor rotations dropped below 100 percent, we dropped the water and tried again," Chapin said. "It wasn't uncommon to see them drop to 95-96 percent, which is not what we want. So, we immediately dropped the water and went back to try again."
Geraci served in the active-duty Army for more than eight years, primarily flying air assault missions. He said there are similarities between the two missions that appear drastically different.
"In Afghanistan, they say, 'the enemy might kill you, but the terrain will kill you,' if you're not slow and methodical," Geraci said. "The terrain in Colorado is similar, so we try to be methodical, and rely on our training and think through the operation because the terrain here is unforgiving."
Although new to the National Guard firefighting mission, Geraci credited partnerships, training and experience of his fellow pilots and crew in the success of the mission and said he hopes he made a difference.
"I met a guy at breakfast in Alamosa, big smile on his face and he asked us what we were doing," said Geraci. "He said he was going to find out that day if his house was still there. It really hit me that we're affecting people's lives and hopefully helping people keep their homes."
A unity of effort
The CONG is no stranger to supporting wildland firefighting operations and places emphasis on improving and refining practices. In 2010, the CONG aviation community began gathering for what has become an annual wildland firefighting conference, held in April.
CONG pilots, crew and maintenance Soldiers, together with civil and first-response agencies, learn more about each other's capabilities and communications. There is also practical application, as the CONG pilots and crews practice dipping for and dropping water, as called in by ground crews.
According to Stansbury, the CONG aviators have seen improvement in every aspect of firefighting, due in large part to the conference and interagency training.
"Partnerships have been built over practical application and necessity, but the training is where they are refined and rejuvenated," Stansbury said. "The intent is to train the pilots to integrate in the firefighting structure. Fire and smoke is missing, but everything else is there."
In addition to bolstering communication between civilian agencies, military crews, and National Guard Soldiers have also gained an understanding about fire itself.
"Now we know what fire behavior is," Chapin said. "We have direct communication with the responders on the ground and we can talk the same language. We know the names, sections, and positions of the fire, so when they tell us, 'Hey, we need you on the left flank. Start dropping at the heel and just tie in toward the head,' we know exactly what that means."
As the "air boss," Blatz' job entails ensuring the right aircraft are on the job and coordinating with the operations section to ensure that they get what they need from the air assets. Blatz said the CONG and civilian aircraft are extremely important to fighting fires.
"They can cool off the fire so that the firefighters can get lines dug closer to the fire to slow it down and put it out," Blatz said. "The State of Colorado has done an excellent job integrating the CONG and using their skills that are vital in fighting fires."
Stansbury emphasized the breadth of the CONG's efforts in fighting the fires.
"It wasn't just two helicopters," Stansbury said. "It was helicopters from the 2-135th fighting fires and helicopters from HAATS providing stand-by search and rescue. It was a unity of effort."
"We also had our forward arming and refueling unit providing 'hot refuel,' which improved our efficiency and our safety. We are able to refuel our aircraft much closer to the fire, and since we don't have to shut down, we're able to take on some fuel and go."
"It saves a ton of time and increases safety because we don't have to fill our tanks. We can take on less fuel which means we now have more power with less weight, which provides a greater safety margin when factoring in the water we were carrying," Stansbury said.
Citizen- Soldiers, Citizen-Airmen
CONG personnel deployed to the Spring Fire July 2-13. The majority of these Soldiers and Airmen serve in a part-time role, while also working full-time jobs inside and outside the military.
"We worked together toward a common goal," Stansbury said. "Thank you to the Soldiers and Airmen for stepping up, but also the families and employers for being separated from their servicemembers."
"There were a lot of Fourth of July celebrations that were without members of the CONG because they stepped up to help the State of Colorado," Stansbury said.
Chapin said the professionalism and willingness to help defines these CONG members as "true Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen."
"I spent 10 years on active duty and have been in the National Guard just about ten years. The professionalism is second to none, here. I am so thankful to be a part of such a top-notch organization filled with true professionals."
"I have great faith in them. I'm proud to serve with them," Chapin said.