Nebraska National Guard Team Battles Wildfire By Air and Ground

At the direction of Governor Pete Ricketts and at the request of local authorities battling wildfires in Gosper and Furnas Counties in south central Nebraska, the Nebraska National Guard activated 38 Airmen and Soldiers to assist with both aerial and ground firefighting assets April 8-12, 2022.

Two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crews, a 25-person wildland fire crew and support vehicles deployed to fight fires that had burned more than 30,000 acres and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and other structures, fueled by drought conditions and strong winds.

“This fire made several 180-degree shifts in direction, multiple times each day, giving it access to new fuel,” said Capt. Joshua Miller, commander of the 755th Firefighting Team (Headquarters), Nebraska Army National Guard. “Driving to the fire was also dangerous. On the road it would go from good visibility to near zero visibility with a gust of wind and smoke causing a ‘brownout.'”

The strong winds and smoke likely contributed to a deadly vehicle crash April 7, the day prior to the National Guard activation, when an SUV was struck head on by a truck hauling water. Both vehicles were involved in the wildfire response. Darren Krull, Chief of the Elwood Volunteer Fire Department, died at the scene, and Phelps County Emergency Manager Justin Norris was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.

“As soon as we reported to the Arapahoe fire station where incident command was set up, we turned around and got to work out on the fire lines,” Miller said.

Some of the local volunteer firefighters had already been battling the wildfire for two days, and they were glad to see two dozen National Guardsmen arrive well-equipped with vehicles including two M1158 HEMTT-based Water Tenders (HEWATT). Another 13 National Guard soldiers had already arrived with two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter with 780-gallon “Bambi” water buckets.

The Guard’s mission lasted five days, during which time the helicopter crews made more than 150 water drops on smoldering hot spots, and the hand crews at work on the ground established fire breaks 30-feet wide to deny the fire any additional fuel to spread.

The joint team of Air and Army Guard firefighters benefitted from wildland fire training conducted just weeks earlier in March at the Greenlief Training Site near Hastings, Nebraska. Each of the firefighters completed either an initial or refresher training for their red card certification.

According to Miller, after completing the training they were eager to deploy and put their training to good use to assist neighbors in a time of need.

Senior Master Sgt. Rene Arriola, 155th Air Refueling Wing base fire chief, shared this sentiment.

“It was tough physically and mentally, but being able to lend a hand and support the citizens of Nebraska shows the importance of the National Guard.”

Story by Maj. Scott Ingalsbe

Ryan Mason
Ryan Mason
Ryan is an accomplished writer and aerial photographer that has worked in the aviation industry for over a decade before co-founding AerialFire Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ryan is a former police officer that focuses his writing and photography efforts on para-public operations and agricultural aviation.

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