By Sgt. Zach Sheely
Public Affairs Office
When people think of emergencies in Kansas, floods and tornadoes may come to mind. However, that may be changing after a series of fires blackened more than 1,000 square miles of Northwest, Southwest and Central Kansas – all within a matter of 10 days in March.
Lives were at stake in the small communities that dot the map of America’s Heartland, and the first responders’ swift and calculated response was vital to protecting them.
An abundant growing season in 2016, followed by a dry winter, low relative humidity and high winds combined to form perfect conditions for a fast-moving, blistering fire. The numbers are staggering – one fatality, approximately 658,000 acres (roughly the size of Rhode Island) burned, thousands of livestock lost, and 40 homes destroyed. It’s the largest recorded fire event Kansas has ever seen.
The agencies of the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department, including the Kansas National Guard and Kansas Division of Emergency Management, partnered with numerous other local, state and federal agencies to safeguard the lives of Kansans and contain this conflagration.
Angee Morgan, deputy director, Kansas Division of Emergency Management
“I’ve been in emergency management since 1987 and we’ve never had a day in Kansas when the threat of wildland fire was that great,” said Morgan.
FEMA granted a Fire Management Assistance Grant to the state of Kansas on March 6. The FMAG provides a 75 percent federal cost share while the state pays the remaining 25 percent of firefighting costs.
“In our first phone call to FEMA, we had five fires that were not contained and were threatening cities that had evacuated,” said Morgan. “It’s extremely difficult to get the FMAG and we got it in record time. It was just unheard of.
“Our goal in emergency management is to get the right resource to fit the need at the local level to protect lives, property and critical infrastructure.”
KDEM works closely with the Kansas National Guard under the Adjutant General’s Department umbrella, and it became apparent that the local fire responders would need the aerial fire suppression help of the Kansas Army National Guard.
“The capability of fighting the fire from the air is critical because, as we saw in the Anderson Creek Fire in 2016, the terrain is different from other parts of the state,” said Morgan. “You cannot get fire trucks into some of these areas. There are no road systems in place. There are deep canyons. The ability of being able to attack from the air is vital.”
Morgan said that the communication between the civilian agencies and the Kansas Guard was seamless.
“The interaction goes very well because we work together daily,” she said. “It’s really important to have pre-disaster relationships established so we understand each other’s capabilities.”
Maj. Ryan Bernard, commander, Army Aviation Support Facility #2, Salina
“We tried to get an aircraft out the door as quickly as possible based on the request from KDEM to be available,” said Bernard.
At approximately 2 a.m. on March 6, Bernard received notification that UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with accompanying Soldiers and Bambi buckets were needed to assist with fire suppression in Rooks County in Southwest Kansas.
Bernard, as with many Kansas National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, serves in multiple roles. He is the 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment logistics officer, an experienced UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, and the commander of Army Aviation Support Facility #2.
“At four o’clock in the morning,” said Bernard, “I notified the operations officer to start the alert roster and to give (the Soldiers) a 5 a.m. show time. Going into it, you have no idea how long the mission may last, so you have to pack a minimum of a three-day go bag.”
Initially, Bernard was the pilot in command of the lead aircraft from AASF #2 and remained the officer in charge of the fire suppression mission throughout its duration. The mission began with two Black Hawks on March 6, then grew to four with the addition of two additional birds out of Aviation Facility #1 in Topeka, to seven total aircraft by March 8, all equipped with Bambi buckets.
Bernard said the view from the air was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“Seeing the amount of land that burned from the air took my breath away,” said Bernard. “There were some areas where the landscape was black as far as the eye could see.”
Bernard said the Soldiers’ mission was to contain the fire and protect property.
Each Black Hawk is piloted by two Soldiers and there are two crew chiefs in the rear of the aircraft. For fire suppression missions, the helicopter uses a large bucket to dip water from a predetermined source, then haul the water to dump it where it is needed most. The Bambi bucket is affixed by a 30-foot line on the underside of the airframe and can hold up to 660 gallons of water.
The aviators of the Kansas Army National Guard gained valuable experience in aerial fire suppression during the Anderson Creek Fire of 2016 and this year, which Bernard said adds to their capability and readiness.
“From the time before Anderson Creek to now,” said Bernard, “we have a lot better idea of what we’re capable of in an emergency response. We’ve learned a great deal about ourselves and our readiness.”
The regiment fielded new UH-60M model Black Hawks in early 2016. The pilots – who often have civilian careers – have also had to train to fly the new models. National Guard helicopter pilots are required to fly a minimum of 96 hours per year, the same as their active-duty counterparts.
“We are blessed in Kansas to have the most competent, proficient and flexible aviators in the country,” said Bernard. “I truly believe that.”
Capt. Casey Atkins, operations officer, AASF #2, pilot in command of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter
“It’s special,” said Atkins, an experienced medevac and assault UH-60 helicopter pilot. “Being an aviator, you don’t get a lot of interaction with the people you’re helping, but being down in those communities and seeing their gratitude makes you feel like you are making a difference.
“That’s what you signed up to do, to be able to help people that are in need. It’s very rewarding.”
Atkins also flew aerial fire suppression missions during the Anderson Creek Fire in Barber County, which, until this year’s blaze, was the largest in recorded Kansas history. He said teamwork is paramount when coordinating response to an emergency of this magnitude.
“It’s pretty spectacular watching the agencies from all the different backgrounds and training come together, with no previous experience working together, to determine the best course of action,” Atkins said. “The guys on the ground are the experts. They’re the ones who know what they need done.”
Along with the Kansas National Guard Soldiers, there were civilian-operated fixed-wing aircraft and three CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the 11th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, U.S. Army Reserve Aviation Command, Gardner, Kansas, assisting with aerial fire suppression.
It was the first-ever domestic air mission for the U.S. Army Reserve under the Immediate Response Authority, which authorizes local Army Reserve commanders, at the request of a local civil authority, to take action to save lives, prevent human suffering or mitigate great property damage in a situation of urgency.
The Chinook is a twin-rotor helicopter that can lift heavier loads than a Black Hawk, and can utilize a larger 2,000 gallon Bambi bucket. The pairing of USAR and KSNG aviation assets was a first for the state of Kansas in an emergency response.
“We actually teamed up a Chinook and a Black Hawk together, which gives you 2,660 gallons of water,” said Atkins. “The guys from the USAR were excellent and worked with us great. They were just like we were, ready to do whatever it took to get the situation under control. It was a complete team effort.”
Atkins also credits his fellow Kansas Guard pilots and crewmembers for their professionalism and resilience.
“It’s a testament to the type of people who are in the Kansas Guard,” he said. “They’re willing to give up their time to go on state active duty in a moment’s notice, no questions asked. It shows the type of character and the type of people we employ here at the facility, as well as the Kansas National Guard.
“It’s a privilege to work with people like that.”
Spc. Orin Meyer, UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief, Company A, 1-108th, Aviation, Topeka
“I was glad to be able to do my job,” said Meyer. “It’s an incredible experience. I was happy to be a part of that.”
Meyer, who works on reconstructing bridges in Wichita, has served in the Guard for more than two years. This was his first real-world experience as a crew chief.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was excited,” said Meyer. “We train a lot and I have trust in my pilots. They have the utmost level of professionalism.”
The crew chief sits in the rear of the aircraft and is responsible for everything that happens in or to the helicopter and helps to maintain it. On a fire suppression mission, they are the eyes of the pilots while making water dips and drops.
“My job is to guide the pilots down to get the bucket filled,” Meyer said. “Once it’s filled, we get the location of where we need to drop. Once I have eyes on the target and once we’re over it, I hit the release and drop the bucket load on the fire.”
Meyer also captured photos and video of from above the fires. One photo he took of an unburned house surrounded by charred landscape was used widely by news outlets.
“That was pretty neat,” said Meyer. “I was kind of in shock that everything around it had burned, but the house. And there were a lot of other houses like that we and the crews on the ground helped save.”
Staff Sgt. Gilbert Gonzales, readiness noncommissioned officer, Company A, 1-108th Aviation, Topeka
“It’s a feeling of elation,” said Gonzales of being activated to help with an emergency. “You’re excited, you’re pumped. This is why people join the military and the Guard, to help their community. It’s a great sense of accomplishment and pride.
“These are the things they show you in the recruiting office.”
The seven Kansas Army National Guard helicopters dropped a combined total of 482 buckets of water, which equates to roughly 289,200 gallons of water. However, Gonzales said that most of the credit should go to the firefighters on the ground.
“I want to make sure that everybody understands the ground crews did a majority of the work,” said Gonzales. “We came in and we helped close things up, but the ground crews were working their butts off.”