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Behind the scenes: Blackhawks prepare for wildfire assistance

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 4:44 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - This year, the North Dakota National Guard has deployed black hawk helicopters twice to assist ground crews fighting wildfires in the western part of the state.

The call to action is not as simple as it may seem. Many state leaders must sign off before they take flight.

When North Dakota grasslands are on fire, time is of the essence as crews on the ground battle to stop its spread.

Twice this year, Gov. Doug Burgum has initiated flight for the National Guard, a mission that takes a lot of work behind the scenes.

On Monday, soldiers unpacked the bucket that dropped more than 10,000 gallons of water on the Roosevelt Creek Fire.

“We haven’t had a year like this where we have had to launch for multiple fires for the time that I have been out here,” said Josh Yri, instructor pilot supervisor.

Many times the crew has less than an hour to prepare for the mission, and pilot Ramon E. Salgado knows they’re working against time.

“This is not only life, it is also property. We’re trying to avoid damage because of the fire on different properties because we have to remember, there’s ranches and farms out there,” said Salgado, chief warrant officer 5.

Once in the air, the helicopters are flying less than 100 feet off the ground to release water.

“We’ll make that first drop and sometimes we might not make it on the fire right away. But that second drop we can come in and usually hit it just by judging the air speed and the winds,” said Sgt. Chad Reimer, crew chief.

However, there are many challenges the crews face.

“The wind, the fire, there’s a lot of smoke. So we have to do these maneuvers as we are trying to fight the fires,” said Salgado.

Pilots must also take into consideration the weight change as water is released.

“They’re good at recognizing that and keeping our altitude down so we don’t get higher and cause a water loss from the mist,” said Reimer.

Crews can continue to drop buckets of water for up to two hours before refueling. However, they know any help will be appreciated by the hardworking firefighters on the ground.

“I think in some instances that they can’t reach certain points of the fire, and I think they’re pretty grateful for us to be up in the air dropping water in areas they can’t get to,” said Reimer.

As wildfire season approaches, the North Dakota Army National Guard is prepared to take flight the next time it’s helicopters are needed. The National Guard is waiting on parts to add buckets to its smaller, Lakota helicopters.

These will be able to carry up to 400 gallons of water to assist on smaller fires.

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