As of 29 March, the US’s Kansas National Guard reported that the Anderson Creek Fire had scorched approximately 400,000 acres of rural Oklahoma and Kansas land, with approximately 273,000 acres affected in Barber County located in south central Kansas, making it one of the biggest wildfires in Kansas history, according to the Kansas Forest Service. With the help of scores of professional and volunteer firefighters, the Kansas National Guard and a helpful snowstorm that dropped nearly three inches of snow on the burn zone, the fire was nearing full containment.
Rugged terrain made it difficult for ground-based fire crews to access all of the areas affected, and so Kansas National Guard aviation assets were called in. Four Black Hawk helicopters equipped with Bambi buckets and approximately 20 soldiers from 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation Regiment, Kansas Army National Guard, arrived in Medicine Lodge on 26 March to assist with aerial fire suppression and reconnaissance. The fire was approximately 15 per cent contained at the time, according to Gaten Wood, agency administrator for Barber County.
“The ground crews are stating that we knocked the teeth in on this fire and beat it down pretty good,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steve Hood, KSARNG, who served as the flight control manager. “The civilian agencies in this part of the country do not have any aviation assets, so it’s all ground. When you get fires this big, all the ground guys can do is try to contain it. With the aircraft and the Bambi bucket, we can put a lot of water where these guys can’t get. We can do a lot of cooling of the fire, so the ground crews can get in and knock it down.”
The Guard dumped an estimated 124 buckets of water on hot spots and areas in need, as directed by the incident management. Col Dave Leger, state Army aviation officer, KSARNG, estimated an approximate 68,000 gallons (310,000 litres) of water were dumped on 26 and 27 March. As of the evening of 27 March 27, the fire containment was estimated to be above 80 per cent by incident officials.
According to Masters, the teamwork between the fire crews, incident management team and Guard Soldiers came naturally: “We were working seamlessly as one air team. That cohesion and teamwork was instant as soon as the aircraft landed.”
Maj. Kevin Kennedy, 1-108th operations officer Black Hawk pilot, added: “The integration between us and the guys on the ground has been phenomenal. They’ve been able to zero us in on some of the spots that are inaccessible as well as some of the areas where the fire is just so big it makes more sense to attack it from above.”
Many of the Kansas aviation Soldiers have assisted with wildfire suppression in other states, but for most, this was their first fire control mission in Kansas. “As Guardsmen,” Kennedy said, “this is one of the reasons that we joined. We joined so that we could help our brothers and sisters in the event that something happened. The ability to take our training and use that training to help our neighbours is why we got into this business to begin with.”
Kennedy was quick to credit the ground crews for a majority of the containment. “Even though our contributions are probably the most visible,” Kennedy said, “the people who are making the most difference are the firefighters that are on the ground.”