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JTF sentinel mission becomes 'wait and see'

MATHER AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Since the California fires began June 21, Army and Air National Guard aircrews have flown continuously, supporting the massive fire fighting operation.

At the height of the operation, more than two dozen aircraft from as many as 14 states, as far away as New York, were assigned to Joint Task Force Sentinel.

Aircrews endured the stifling heat and smoke, flying continuous fire suppression missions and dropping nearly four million gallons of water on the flames that have scorched more than 900,000 acres, or an area roughly equivalent to the size of Rhode Island.

In fact, just one week ago, the flightline at Mather Field, near Sacramento, sat mostly empty with the exception of aircraft requiring maintenance and a couple of spare aircraft ready to go if called upon.

Now, with the fires mostly under control, the aircrews supporting the effort can finally begin to breathe as many aircraft are pulled from active support to a stand-by role.

Maj. David Hall, a JTF Sentinel operations officer, said operations from Mather are being scaled back based on direction from the State's Joint Forces Headquarters and as a result of inputs from the Office of Emergency Services, CAL FIRE and other civil agencies indicating forces on the ground, along with civil aircraft support, are sufficient to handle the current fire situation.

"This is a balancing act, and we work with multiple agencies to determine what type of support they need from us," Hall said. "Downsizing typically occurs when our partner agencies believe they can manage the fires still burning with the civilian air and ground assets they have available."

He added that although Guard aircrews aren't likely going to see the same level of tasking, they will maintain a presence, along with ensuring aircraft are immediately available to support state missions as required.

"We have six aircraft still supporting active missions, but we'll have about four additional aircraft available that will serve as alert aircraft able to launch if needed," Hall said.

Interestingly, most of the aircraft currently on mission aren't California assets. In fact, Hall said many of the out-of-state aircrews are taking the lead role in the effort affording the California crews a much-needed break.

"The out-of-state units showed up and were eager to help out with the mission, so we're sending them out," Hall said. "This is a great opportunity for us and them, since they are getting some hands-on experience fighting the fires, helping out California and also giving our aircrews a chance to breathe."

In fact, Staff Sgt. Jim Irby, an Alabama National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk crewchief, said he's anxious to get their aircraft on the fires.

"We got here July 16 and completed our training, so now we're ready to get out there and help," Irby said. "We almost got to launch twice yesterday, but firefighters in the area were able to gain control of the situation quickly."

And almost on cue, the unit got a mission July 18 - to swap out with the Kansas National Guard aircrews supporting the Chico Complex fires, making pilot Chief Warrant Officer Randy Kirkland smile.

"This is what we came here for," he said as he and his crew prepared to head for their aircraft.

CAL FIRE Wildland Battalion Chief Scott Watson said the Guard's quick response, coupled with excellent communication among the agencies, was a critical factor in the civil authorities' ability to gain control of the fire so quickly.

"It's been remarkable to take so many aircraft from different sates, bring them to California and train and utilize them," Watson said. "This is a first - an historic event, and we've built a template showing that allegiances like this are critical. I think from this we can actually work toward a national standard for emergency response."

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