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Guard fights wildfires, responds to Ida, serves overseas

  • Published
  • By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
  • National Guard Bureau

The National Guard continues to live up to its promise, "Always Ready, Always There," with close to 59,000 Guard members on duty overseas or at home responding to Hurricane Ida, wildfires and COVID-19.

"As the combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force, we are manned, trained and equipped to fight our nation's wars," said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief. "But in times of emergency, those same people, training and equipment provide us the ability to respond to our communities when they need us most."

Those on duty include more than 8,800 Soldiers and Airmen from 14 states responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

"They're conducting search and rescue sweeps, providing security and support of local law enforcement, establishing distribution locations for people to get food and water, and clearing roads to allow crews to restore power to over 1 million residents," Hokanson said.

Response efforts began in the days leading up to Ida making landfall.

"We mobilized all of our available Soldiers and Airmen for the response," said Army Maj. Gen. Lee Hopkins, Louisiana National Guard assistant adjutant general for Army, adding that vehicles, equipment and personnel were prepositioned throughout the state based on the projected storm path.

"As soon as landfall happened, and the winds allowed, all those high-water vehicles and helicopters, we launched them," he said. "We were out in 31 parishes, conducting search and rescue, and looking for the people who were stranded in Louisiana."

Guard members rescued 397 people and 65 pets as of Tuesday, said Hopkins. They have also distributed more than 4.4 million bottles of water, 3.8 million meals ready to eat and 224,000 sandbags.

Search and rescue missions have begun to taper off, he said, and Guard members have picked up additional security, route clearance, and food and water distribution missions.

"We've just begun moving into one of our most manpower-intensive missions, which is commodity distribution," Hopkins said. "During pre-storm preparations, we relocated and moved hundreds of thousands of meals and hundreds of thousands of bottles of water to our regional staging area."

That included loading trucks and lining up convoys, he said.

"We were fully prepared prior to the storm coming in, and we hunkered down," Hopkins said. "Once the storm passed, we immediately pushed those convoys out to establish points of distribution, or as we call them, PODs. As of today, we're operating 17 PODs in support of nine parishes, but we know in the coming days that's going to grow to over 40 PODs."

Meanwhile, more than 2,500 Soldiers and Airmen with the California National Guard are on duty assisting state and local authorities with law enforcement, emergency and wildfire response throughout the Golden State.

"We have 16 major fires burning throughout the state," said Army Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, California Guard adjutant general. "These fires are huge. As a matter of fact, the fires are making runs of 20 and 30,000 acres per day."

Roughly 1,500 Guard members are responding to wildfires, Baldwin said, and National Guard units from other states have been assisting those efforts.

"Like Louisiana, we're getting a lot of help from outside the state," he said. "We have 10 states that have contributed forces, mainly aviation units to participate and assist us with putting out these fires."

Those aviation assets include both manned and remotely piloted aircraft, which are assisting with fire mapping and incident awareness, Baldwin said.

"We're also using satellite systems that we leverage for mapping and disaster assistance," he said.

Army National Guard aircrews have been flying UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters to fight the fires. They join Air National Guard crews in C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, flying in often challenging conditions.

"It's pretty hot, it's pretty smoky," said Lt. Col. John Holland, a pilot with the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, who has been flying the MAFFS mission. "Occasionally, the smoke will clear out because the wind will pick up, but when the wind picks up, the fire tends to get up and run and spread quickly."

Working quickly and staying ahead of the fire is key, he said, as well as coordination between air and ground assets, especially as the fires move into populated areas.

"As they start to move into places where they threaten structures, there's a lot of air assets that are flying on those incidents," Holland said. "And so, making sure we are well-coordinated and orchestrated with everybody that's in the airspace to get that effectively dealt with and try to mitigate as best as possible is kind of the big picture for us."

Fighting the fires is just as challenging for Guard members on the ground working as hand crews.

"Because they're working an active fire line, they're often faced with huge walls of flame," Baldwin said. "The smoke is choking because it's extremely thick."

Crews have also been working around the clock in mountainous terrain that presents physically demanding conditions, he said.

Despite the challenges, Guard members remain mission-focused.

"Our Soldiers and Airmen are taking it in stride and performing their missions magnificently," Baldwin said.

As those Soldiers and Airmen battle wildfires and respond to Ida, another 12,750 Guard members are taking part in COVID-19 response operations, and approximately 800 are assisting with the relocation of Afghan nationals to sites throughout the country.

"That's in addition to the aircrews and support teams directly involved in the airlift operations," Hokanson said. "We do all of this and continue to meet every overseas deployment requirement, with more than 17,700 National Guard men and women providing assistance on the ground and in the air to our combatant commanders."

For many Guard members, that's the promise they made when they enlisted.

"We're in this for the long haul," Baldwin said.

Hopkins agreed.

"Our motto in Louisiana is 'protect what matters,' and we're going to do everything we can to do that," he said. "We protect what matters."