Ore. National Guard helping on Logging Unit fires

Four helicopters, 23 crew members deployed to assist

OR National Guard aiding in wildfire fight

MADRAS, Ore. - The eyes in the sky are here.

"Last year, we started just about a month later, so it is a little earlier this year,"  Command Sgt. Maj. Shane Lake said Wednesday. "We start preparing -- really it's year round, but in March we start preparing our crews for the fire season that comes in the summer -- just a little bit earlier this year."

Twenty-three National Guard members on base are using four helicopters -- two Black Hawks based out of Salem and two Chinooks from Pendleton -- to battle the Logging Unit Fires, burning across over 10,000 acres just west of Madras.

"We have two pilots, one flies the helicopter and the other navigates and talks on the radio that goes to both air attack and firefighters on the ground," said Lt. Alan Gronewold.

"Then we have two crew members, one stands at the door behind me and lines the helicopter up with the fire, so he tells us turn left and right. And the fourth lies on the floor of the helicopter and monitors the bucket through the cargo hold and actually releases the water onto the fire."

The Chinooks can carry up to 1,500 gallons of water each, while the Black Hawks pick up 500 gallons per scoop.

And during a sky-high mission, communication with the ground is key.

"We do a flight follow with the aircraft, so they are checking in with us every 15 minutes, as well as we are tracking them using a GPS system on a computer program," said Mark Oetzmann, helibase manager trainee.

The aviation crews don't take all the credit. In fact, they say they are just a tiny piece of the big firefighting puzzle.

"We just deliver water to the firefighters on the ground, and they use the water to manage the fire and put it out. So we don't fight fire, we just help manage fire," Gronewold said.

But they take pride in what they do, one flight at a time.

"Nothing prouder than seeing citizen-soldiers stand up and be able to help support their own state," Lake said.

The Guard helicopters have been in Madras since Monday. Officials say they will be in Central Oregon for as long as the governor says so and as long as they are needed.

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