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The whine of aircraft engines drowns out all but the loudest of conversations as mechanics move back and forth across a wide aircraft hangar carrying instruments and equipment.
Soldiers with the Illinois Army National Guard’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, 238th General Support Aviation, based out of Peoria, Illinois, hurry to make ready one of their helicopters, a CH-47 “Chinook,” for the long journey out to California. Today, Aug. 31, that helicopter arrived safely in Mather, California, about 18 miles east of Sacramento, to help with the largest wildfires in California’s history.
These experienced Soldiers, with their half-dozen aircraft all lined up neatly on the tarmac, move with the well-oiled ease of years of practice. Many of them wear deployment patches, indicating their service overseas in Afghanistan, and most of them have participated in what the Guard refers to as domestic operations.
“This is what I joined the guard for,” said Illinois Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Chad Brown, a Macomb, Illinois native, an aircraft mechanic and flight crew member with the 2-238th GSAB. “I’ve done a couple of deployments in Afghanistan, but I like helping out the public and helping out other states if we can.”
Domestic operations is a broad, inclusive term used to denote the wide range of homeland activities that fall within the unique mission of the National Guard. Unlike the active duty military and the Reserves, the National Guard responds to floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters here in the homeland on state active duty. As an aviation unit, the 2-238th is capable of rapidly supporting a wide variety of these difficult situations.
“A lot of times it’s really hard work and long hours, but it’s good to be able to help people out,” said Brown. “In 2016 I went to the hurricane relief in Puerto Rico with the [Military Police], and we were lugging cases of water around, carrying food door to door. It was really nice to see that. They really appreciated us being there and helping out.”
This time, their mission is to help with the massive, multistate wildland fire-fighting operations engulfing the Western United States.
“We’ll work with CAL FIRE the entire time we’re out there to support the firefighters on the ground,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jason Rassi, of Mapleton, Illinois, a pilot with the 2-238th and one of the soldiers departing for the Western United States. “We’re not necessarily putting the fire out, but were protecting the firefighters so they can do their jobs.”
After two days of flying, they’ll be linking up with local authorities and first responders in California to provide both direct and indirect support to the firefighting mission. The CH-47 platform, which has been in service with the military since 1961, is capable of rapidly transporting personnel and equipment, as well as deploying water directly into the area of operations via a number of refit kits. The 2-238 flies the CH-47F, introduced in 2006, it can fly at speeds of approximately 200 miles an hour and carry more than 21,000 pounds.
This Illinois National Guard Chinook will be equipped with a Bambi Bucket, an articulated bladder capable of carrying 2,000 gallons of water that can be dispersed either directly onto fires, or deployed as a method of moving and shaping a developing fire.
“Once we get there and get on site, point us in the direction we need to drop the water that’s going to be the easier part,” said Rassi, explaining the different capabilities of the Bambi Bucket and its usefulness in firefighting operations.
The bucket, which has a variable valve that allows everything from a misting spray to a deluge, transports roughly the equivalent of an outdoor swimming pool and can be filled in either natural or man-made bodies of water before being lifted to the drop site.
The crew selected for this mission are among the most seasoned in the entire unit, and have a host of domestic and overseas missions under their belts.
“We’ve done hurricane relief in different states, flood relief in different states, but we haven’t done fire yet so this will be a new experience for us,” Rassi said. “Luckily my entire crew has at least one deployment if not multiple.”