Aerial Bucket Brigade

A naval aircrewman (Helicopter), assigned to the “Merlins” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3, connects a “Bambi Bucket” to an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter in support of aerial firefighting efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Paolo Bayas)

Navy MH-60S Seahawks Assist San Diego During Wildfires

While many residents of California may consider it paradise, the dangers of devastating wildfires are all too real. Last year was particularly hellish; between October and December fires scorched 1.38 million acres, killing 46, destroying thousands of buildings and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Things could have been much worse if not for the heroism of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE), who sent firefighters into harm’s way, and also fought fires from above with their fleet of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. During times of crisis, that fleet includes MH-60S Seahawks from Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Pacific (HSCWINGPAC).

On Dec. 7, CALFIRE was battling seven fires at once, including the massive 280,000-acre Thomas Fire in Ventura County—the largest in state history. With all 50 of its aircraft in use, CALFIRE requested help battling the Lilac Fire in northern San Diego County, which would go on to burn more than 4,000 acres and destroy more than 150 buildings. The fire threatened Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and several communities including Bonsall, Fallbrook and Oceanside. Within hours of receiving the call, the Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) squadrons based at Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island had painted four helicopters with special pink outlines—to keep them visible through smoke—and dispatched two of them north to fight the fire.

“When we saw the fires on the news, we began preparing our buckets and getting into the operational mindset,” said Cmdr. Sean Rocheleau, HSC-3’s Commanding Officer. “When the official call came from Third Fleet, we were ready to fly.”

Two MH-60S Seahawks retrieve water from a lake near a wildfire in San Diego County. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Jon Husman)

After arriving at Camp Pendleton and receiving a briefing from CALFIRE, the two helicopters, one from the “Merlins” of HSC-3 and one from the “Blackjacks” of HSC-21, were in the skies over the blaze, dropping 320 to 420 gallons of water from “Bambi buckets” onto hot spots to help protect local communities. After 18 drops and more than 5,600 gallons of water, the helicopters returned to Coronado, having helped contain the fire and protect homes.

“There are a lot of things we do where we don’t directly see how we impacted the mission,” said Naval Air Crewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Mario Guardado of HSC-3. “Having done this, it is really satisfying to immediately see the impact of putting out fires to help our local community.”

Navy helicopters are no stranger to fighting fires. CALFIRE also reached out to the Navy during the devastating 2003 Cedar fire that destroyed more than 2,200 homes in San Diego County. CALFIRE saw HSC squadrons, which fight fires at the Southern California Offshore Range (SCORE) at San Clemente Island, as a valuable force multiplier. A memorandum of understanding was signed which allows DOD aircraft to support CALFIRE when necessary and when all non-DOD aircraft are committed and unavailable.

Since this agreement, Navy HSC squadrons have provided aerial firefighting support for seven fires between 2006 and 2017.

“Military pilots are more than competent to fight fires. Hands down, if you go through a military flight training program, you are a good, solid pilot,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Laird, a pilot with HSC-3. “The Navy trains you to land on ships, fly in horrible weather and awful conditions, and looks at you as a weapons system, so flying becomes second nature. The only caveat is that we are much younger and inexperienced when it comes to fighting fires. However, because of our competence through our training, the learning curve is much less steep for us.”

A naval aircrewman, conducts a water drop during a wildfire. (U.S. Navy Photo by MC2 Sebastian McCormack)

CALFIRE and HSCWINGPAC have a joint training program. HSC pilots and aircrew receive ground training from a CALFIRE representative. The training covers the description of a Fire Traffic Area, communication, language and fire terminology, and how and what to expect in the case that the Navy is called to provide support for aerial firefighting. The aircrews then conduct six initial water pickups and drops. Maintaining this qualification requires an additional two water pick-ups and drops every 180 days.

According to CALFIRE Battalion Chief Burke Kremensky, squadrons such as HSC-3 and HSC-21, which train annually to meet CALFIRE standards and have experience with firefighting on San Clemente Island, do an outstanding job in emergency firefighting missions.

“When CALFIRE first started working [with the Navy], there were growing pains, but the continued training and relationships we have fostered have made this a valuable program to San Diego,” Kremensky said. “The Navy has become an excellent partner, and I know the community of San Diego greatly appreciates their assistance.”

Navy HSC squadrons provide tremendous versatility to Navy commanders with the ability to conduct anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, drug interdiction, cargo lift, early warning, medevac and special operations support. But its ability to support civil authorities during times of disaster was apparent in 2017.

“Whether it was helping out during hurricanes Harvey or Maria or the wildfires, HSC helicopters made a big impact last year,” Rocheleau said. “Our aircrews train for a lot of different missions, but when they are supporting fellow Americans or their neighbors, they take a great deal of pride in that.”

Written by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Paolo Bayas, supporting Commander, Naval Air Forces Public Affairs.

MH-60S helicopters from Navy HSC-3 and HSC-21 prepare to take off to combat a wildfire. (U.S. Navy Photo by MC2 Sebastian McCormack)