MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. --
Marines with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, in cooperation with CALFIRE and other supporting agencies, provided aerial support and personnel to assist with firefighting efforts during the San Diego county wildfires, May 14-17.
A number of devastating wildfires started throughout San Diego County from Santa Ana winds, drought and unseasonably high temperatures, which forced the evacuation of tens of thousands and caused more than $20 million of damage.
“The 3rd MAW has worked very closely with CALFIRE over the last several years to develop a relationship that will allow us to respond to the community in the case of a disaster,” said Col. Will Hooper, 3rd MAW deputy operations officer and a Philadelphia native. “In fact we conduct an annual wildfire-fighting exercise with CALFIRE, with the Navy, and with other state and local agencies that prepare us to respond rapidly.”
In total, the 3rd MAW provided 80 aircraft to assist in firefighting efforts and flew more than 280 hours since the original call to action. The 3rd MAW aircraft that participated included: UH-1Y Venom/Super Hueys, CH-46E Sea Knights, CH-53E Super Stallions and KC-130J Hercules.
These 3rd MAW assets delivered more than 540,000 gallons of water throughout San Diego County during the four-day period. As many as 10 aircraft at a time flew in a firefighting effort for the San Marcos, or Cocos, Fire, one of the most intense fires. According to Hooper, the 3rd MAW had a significant impact on saving life and property in the San Marcos area.
As the fires aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., drew nearer to the flightline, Hooper explained that the aircraft diligently fighting the fire couldn’t conduct “hot refuels,” which is when the aircraft refuel on the ground from fuel pits. This circumstance changed quickly as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., based KC-130Js flew to Camp Pendleton to deploy use of the Aviation Delivered Ground Refueling System, allowing the aircraft to keep flying, alleviating precious time it would have taken to stop and restart the engines.
“It was a remarkable demonstration of what the Marine Corps can do in combat and here in the local area, supporting our neighbors, our families and our friends,” said Hooper.
Just like in combat, ground forces coordinated with aviation assets to effectively handle the mission, explained Hooper.
“In combat, it’s with our Marines on the ground; in this case, it was with the California Department of Forest Fires and Forestry, as well as state and local firefighters – and it’s just that exact air-ground team that is the most effective way to fight these fires,” said Hooper.
The UH-1Y and CH-46E can transport a bucket with a maximum capacity of 325 gallons, while the CH-53E can carry a 900-gallon bucket to assist in the firefighting efforts. All these assets provided firefighters on the ground critical support that saved both life and property, providing testament to the Marine cooperation with the firefighting agencies.
“We actually work and train with CALFIRE to integrate the aviation and the ground elements of this firefighting,” said Hooper. “As a matter of fact, CALFIRE has military controllers airborne in helicopters on where to drop the water so that it can integrate with their ground forces.”
Marines remain diligent and ready to respond in any emergency, and the CALFIRE response held no exception.
Hooper explained that although the wing is fortunate to train with CALFIRE and other governmental agencies throughout the year, there are detailed procedures called the Defense Support to Civilian Authorities and the Immediate Response Provision that must be followed when governmental agencies request military assistance.
“We’ve put a lot of training into integrating with state and local agencies to be able to respond immediately when these disasters arise and that is a requirement,” said Hooper. “There is no time to wait days to launch our helicopters to fight these fires.”
One of the Marines whom helped extinguish fires expressed that his desire to help was not only his military duty, but a way to give back to the community in which he lives.
“It means a lot to me to support these guys because I live here; I see this when I wake up,” said Sgt. Carmen Zangari, a CH-46 crew chief with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364, and a Sunbury, Penn., native. “ … These fires are close to home - but it’s also meaningful in the sense that I can give back to the surrounding community. It shows that we have a platform that is more than capable of performing this mission and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re out there performing this mission – exactly as it should be done.”