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Gazette Premium Content Carson choppers spinning up for firefight

JAKOB RODGERS Updated: April 20, 2013 at 12:00 am

A new batch of heavy-lift, twin-rotor helicopters at Fort Carson aim to douse wildfires on the post before they grow into wind-whipped infernos.

Pilots with the post’s new 4th Combat Aviation Brigade — a 113-helicopter unit being assembled at Butts Army Airfield — began training this month to use 2,000-gallon buckets to fight fires across the post’s training ranges.

The flights come as soldiers and airmen across Colorado Springs begin ramping up aerial training exercises in preparation for the fire season.

This week, airmen with the 302nd Airlift Wing — an Air Force Reserve C-130 unit at Peterson Air Force Base — are expected to seek their annual certifications for dropping retardant near wildfires in the coming months.

For years, the C-130 unit represented the lone aerial military firefighting force in the Pikes Peak region.

While Fort Carson’s newest helicopters now stand ready to respond to any blaze on post, myriad challenges remain before they can be called to fight fires outside Fort Carson’s gates, said Scott Campbell, assistant El Paso County fire marshal.

The challenges are particularly difficult along the tinder-laden Front Range, where the fire danger is highest.

“This is in its infancy,” Campbell said. “We’re just taking the baby steps right now.”

The ‘Bambi Bucket’ crews

Five Fort Carson helicopter crews manning twin-rotor

CH-47 Chinooks will be trained to haul the 2,000-gallon bucket, known as a “Bambi Bucket,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jimmy Valencia, a Chinook pilot instructor.

Pilots for some of the brigade’s UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters could also be trained to drop water over wildfires, he said.

The crews — each consisting of two pilots and two crewmen — began training in early April by dipping the bucket into a reservoir and dumping it in another reservoir on post.

Chinook pilots are accustomed to ferrying loads suspended by a similar 80-foot cable.

The hulking aircraft often carry Humvees or supply loads during missions at similar elevations in Afghanistan.

“That’s normal business for us,” Valencia said. “The only difference is we have to work timing with our guys in the hole to try to drop all that water exactly where we want it.”

Valencia has deployed to Afghanistan twice. Each time, the controls began “mushing” in the thin air — a problem exacerbated by Afghanistan’s high temperatures.

He expects the same problems over Colorado wildfires.

The post has three reservoirs big enough to support the aircraft during a fire, Valencia said. Even then, the crews plan to fill their buckets to

80 percent capacity — a load that, at 8 pounds a gallon, weighs nearly 13,000 pounds.

In the summer, when higher temperatures make the air less dense, that capacity should decrease.

Looming hurdles

While the helicopters can douse fires on post, it remains to be seen when those pilots can attack fires elsewhere in the county.

Helicopters with the post’s departed 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment previously ran such missions. But mismatched communications systems and a lack of firefighting policies are likely to prevent Army pilots from fighting fires off the post.

“It’s basically a safety issue,” Fort Carson fire Capt. Peter Wolf said. “They talk on two different types of radio frequencies sometimes.”

Helicopter units at other bases across the U.S. — such as at Camp Pendleton in California — arrange memorandums of understanding with surrounding fire agencies and the U.S. Forest Service, said Kim Christensen, the National Interagency Fire Center’s deputy assistant director for operations.

Often, those helicopter units only respond to fires immediately off-post, when civilian helicopter resources have been tapped, she said.

For fires off-post, Fort Carson helicopters would most likely be called upon for immediate response, when flames endanger life or property, Campbell said.

No such agreements between Carson and the county have been written, Campbell said, and issues such as payments for each flight have yet to be formalized.

“We’ve got some direction, and they’ve had very, very high-level discussions about this, but there is no consensus yet,” Campbell said.

The complexity compounds when flying along the Front Range, where firefighters must coordinate with U.S. Forest Service crews who often order their own aircraft, he said.

He offered no timeline for when an agreement might be signed.

“The guys (pilots) are capable — they’ll pick the water up, and they’ll go sling it where we need to,” Campbell said. “It’s not that side of it.

“It’s just making sure that we’re getting all the other ends buttoned up — the extraneous things, so that we don’t run them into something or get them somewhere where we don’t need to be.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect Scott Campbell's job title.

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

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