Florida National Guard Ready to Respond to Wildfires

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

ORLANDO, Fla., May 9, 2006  - More than 8,000 citizen-soldiers and airmen are ready to assist the state of Florida in fighting wildfires that have plagued the state for several weeks, Florida National Guard officials announced today.

Guard officials said that more than 8,000 acres have burned in Florida, particularly in Volusia, Brevard, Hillsborough and Lee counties. The fires have caused portions of Interstate 95, a widely traveled roadway that links the state to the rest of the East Coast, to close periodically in recent days, and many residences have been destroyed. If the fires persist, they will threaten more homes and businesses, state officials said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency when he signed an executive order yesterday, directing the state's response to the wildfires. The order enables the Florida National Guard to provide emergency support to Florida's Division of Forestry and to the Division of Emergency Management if needed.

Florida National Guard officials said aviation personnel are on standby and awaiting orders to deploy to fight the fires if the Florida Division of Emergency Management calls for help. The aircrews would work under the control of the Division of Forestry.

Army Guard helicopters were standing by today for wildfire assistance missions. According to state officials with Florida National Guard Army Aviation, a UH-60L Fire Hawk and two UH-60 Black Hawks are available for fire-suppression missions.

Guard officials said from their headquarters in St. Augustine that while the governor's executive order requests the Guard to mobilize for fire duty, full-time aircrews employed by the Guard who manage day-to-day operations at the Brooksville, Fla.-based unit will deploy first. If more aircrews are needed, the Guard will then mobilize more traditional guardsmen -- those who perform duty one weekend per month -- and place them on state active duty.

The Florida Guard has specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters outfitted with buckets that can carry water over blazes. In addition, it has a UH-60L Fire Hawk helicopter that it can deploy to combat the wild fires. The Fire Hawk is a modified version of the UH-60 Black Hawk transport.

The Fire Hawk retrieves water through a snorkel and can hold 1,000 gallons in its external tank. Foam can be mixed with the water to make the aircraft more effective in fire-suppression operations. In addition, the Fire Hawk can hold 220 more gallons than Black Hawks equipped with buckets, and Fire Hawks can extract water from water supplies that bucket-equipped helicopters normally cannot use.

The aircraft has not yet been deployed to fight fires in Florida since it arrived in 2002. Wildfire seasons in Florida in the past few years, which run from December to June, have not given the Guard cause to utilize the Fire Hawk. However, this year's low precipitation has caused an outbreak of fires, and the aircraft is ready for deployment.

Florida National Guard officials said state officials are tracking more than 50 active wildfires throughout the state. According to the Florida Division of Forestry, wildfires peak during May and June in Florida. Lightning strikes usually cause most of those fires during this period, but law enforcement officials in Florida have said some of this year's fires are linked to arson.

More than 1,500 Florida National Guard troops were trained for the wildfires in 1999 and were employed in support of the Division of Forestry around the state that year. The Florida Guard currently has forces deployed around the world in support of the Global War on Terror.

Rain is forecasted for the next three days throughout most of central and northern Florida, but the National Weather Service indicates that the dry conditions here are creating wildfire dangers that will persist in the state for the next 90 days. Residents in the fire's path have been asked to evacuate, although mandatory evacuations are not being enforced.

The governor's executive order also invokes the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC. These agreements exist between Florida and other states and are implemented during times of crisis or disaster. They allow the coordination and allocation of resources from other states similar to the multistate response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when several states mobilized their National Guard assets and sent them to help the Gulf States.

In addition, Florida can now ask the federal government for assistance in combating the wildfires.

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