Ability and responsibility: How National Guardsmen are staving off the flames of Louisiana’s wildfires

The Louisiana Army National Guard and multiple Army National Guard soldiers from across the country have come to the aid of local firefighters.
Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 9:03 PM CDT
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SOUTHWEST, La. (KALB) - In the fight to contain and extinguish wildfires across Central and Southwest Louisiana, the Louisiana Army National Guard (LANG) and multiple Army National Guard soldiers from across the country have come to the aid of local firefighters in Vernon and Beauregard Parishes.

As of Thursday, 467 soldiers from Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama are actively running relief operations alongside the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and local officials. Engineers are working to bulldoze wildfire sites, preventing the spread of fires. Meanwhile, pilots are running water missions, using large buckets, called a ‘Bambi Bucket,’ to scoop water from local water sources and dump it on hot spots.

“When you put that 600-gallon bucket underneath that aircraft and you’re trying to pull up out of that water, you’re pulling everything your helicopter’s got to get up and out of there to get to the fires,” explained CW4 Jesse Curtis of LANG.

So far, they have made more than 1,700 loads, dropping a little less than 940,000 gallons of water on active wildfires.

“Finding water and putting it on the fire is the name of the game,” said CW3 Luke Hargrove with the Tennessee Army National Guard.

For some soldiers, the water missions are close to home.

CW4 Curtis has family in and around Rapides Parish, some family members are even close to the flames near Pitkin. His priority is the citizen first, knowing there is always the chance it could be someone he knows whose livelihood is at stake.

“Could be my wife and kids, my grandmother, my mother, my father - anybody in any of those areas. So, we have got to treat them just like we would treat our own family,” said CW4 Curtis. “Everybody is family in Louisiana, and that’s how we like to keep it.”

CW4 Curtis pilots one of the eight Blackhawk helicopters aiding in relief efforts, which carries 600 gallons of water in every load. He estimated he drops between 60 to 90 buckets of water with each trip to the fires, meaning his crew has likely contributed 36,000 to 54,000 gallons of water to the total 939,626 gallons dumped on active fires.

On the airstrip, he is joined by several other guardsmen who do not call Louisiana home but have heeded the call of service.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone here, but we have the ability to help so we have the responsibility to help,” said CW3 Hargrove. “And we’ll try to do it until we run out of gas and then we’ll go refuel and we’ll do it again. And we’ll do that all day until we run out of what we call crew endurance. We have two limitations: One is how long we can be here, and the other is how long we can fly.”

CW3 Hargrove is one of 43 soldiers responding to the wildfires from other states. He, like CW3 Curtis, pilots a Blackhawk.

Meanwhile, Commander Martin Howell of the Oklahoma National Guard pilots the only CH-47 Chinook helicopter currently operating in Louisiana’s firefighting efforts. It is the U.S. Army’s “fastest and most powerful aircraft.”

A Chinook carries 1,300 gallons of water in one load, double the amount a Blackhawk can hold at one time.

It is Commander Howell’s first time fighting wildfires, as well as a first for almost everyone on his crew. However, it is not the crew’s first time responding to a natural disaster in Louisiana. In 2021, his crew was in Southeast Louisiana helping with the pumps in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and the flooding that followed.

“Any chance I get to come down here to support Louisiana, they’re always helpful, they’re always hospitable,” said Commander Howell. “So, there’s no issue for me coming back any time that we’re called.”

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