Story by: Capt. Martha Nigrelle
Post: October 21, 2015
BELTON, Texas – Texas Guardsmen helped save close to 200 homes, while supporting firefighting operations in Bell County, Oct. 20, 2015.
After almost a week of battling the Hidden Pines Fire in Bastrop, four Texas Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawks were rerouted to take on a second fire and support ground troops in suppressing the Comanche Fire, just off of Stillhouse Hollow Lake.
“When we arrived on scene, we knew we needed air support and a large volume of water to fight the fire,” said Rhea Cooper, assistant chief, North Branch, Instant Response, Texas A&M Forest Service.
The forest service requested National Guard support and four aviation crews were sent to help.
“We were going out to the Hidden Pines Fire,” said Texas Army National Guard pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Black, 36th Combat Aviation Brigade. “As soon as we landed, we were directed to the Comanche Fire.”
The fire covered approximately 50 acres and was in close proximity of almost 200 homes.
“It wasn’t too big,” said Black. “But it was threatening a lot.”
Ground crews made up of several local fire departments and members of the Texas A&M Forest Service were already on the ground working to put out the fire. As the fire moved through, it left behind hot spots and smaller fires, all of which ground crews were working to extinguish as quickly as possible, said Black. Ground crews also used bulldozers to create firebreaks in attempts to stop, or direct, the fire.
Toward the end of the day, Black’s crew was called to a smoky area on the northeast side of the lake, by the marina.
“There were some really huge flames,” said Black. “We rushed up and were able to put them out; we definitely saved some houses there.”
Cooper estimates that the four helicopters dropped almost 396,000 gallons of water; an effort he claims was instrumental in putting out the fire.
“The Texas National Guard was absolutely necessary to the operation,” said Cooper, who said he was also impressed with the crews’ ability to maneuver their aircraft in such a small space. “Fifty acres is a relatively small space to operate four helicopters and they were able to do it very safely.”
For Texas National Guard pilots, this type of mission is not new.
A part of the Guard’s mission statement is to provide the governor and the president with ready forces to support state and federal authorities at home and abroad, and they have done just that on many occasions.
“Our unit has been on many fires in the past,” said Black. “And I’ve also been on the other side of it.”
In 2011, Black’s company was mobilized to deploy when the Bastrop County Complex fire hit. Because they were mobilized, that company was unable to support the fire, but fortunately, many other firefighting assets were, to include their sister Texas National Guard aviation companies.
“I live in Bastrop,” said Black. “And those guys saved my house.”
Being able to pass on the favor is important to Black.
“It’s such a good feeling to have your house saved and then to be able to save someone else’s house and property – the feeling is indescribable,” said Black. “It makes me proud to do what I do.”
That feeling seems to be mutual.
“I’m really proud of the hard work our Guardsmen have done all over Central Texas to support firefighting operations and serve our fellow Texans,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, Domestic Operations commander, Texas Military Department.
Helicopter crews responded to six wildfires across central Texas during the week. Partnered with local fire departments and the Texas A&M Forest Service, they helped save hundreds of homes and numerous acres of property.
“It was very rewarding to help – it makes you feel good,” said Black. “Helping people and saving houses.”