Two Black Hawk helicopters deployed from Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Wednesday morning are joining firefighting efforts in Eastern Washington.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Noel Larson said he has been flying for 25 years. This is his seventh time being called out to help with fires.
“The last five years have been really busy,” he said, “2014 and 2015 were pretty awful.”
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a wildfire state of emergency on Tuesday, allowing assistance from the National Guard and Department of Natural Resources.
“We work for the DNR,” Larson said. “No helicopter is ever going to put a fire out. Our job is to assist the guys on the ground.”
The helicopters primarily serve as water buckets, Larson said, although they’re also able to provide other services such as transportation if necessary.
“Essentially, we’re just trying to slow the fire,” said Spc. Noah Marshman, a helicopter crew chief.
The Black Hawks are able to carry about 660 gallons of water at one time, Larson said. They also have the ability to land or dump water in precise spots, an option that isn’t available with fixed-wing planes.
“We’re talking directly to the ground guys and putting it exactly where they want it,” Larson said.
To help with visibility and identification, the two helicopters were marked with bright paint. Black Hawks are designed to be hard to spot, Larson said, but in this case the crew wanted the opposite effect.
Strips of pink, along with the numbers 98 and 30 were marked on the helicopters to make them easier to identify for crews on the ground, and easier to spot for other pilots.
Partway through the process, the team members ran out of the deep magenta hue they were using. That led to some improvisation, Marshman said.
“They ran out of paint, so they just went to the craft store,” he said as he rolled layers of powder-pink paint onto the front of one Black Hawk. The helicopter’s markings wouldn’t match anymore, he joked.
As the crew members finished adding the craft-store paint, a call came in asking for assistance.
“As soon as they fuel up they’re going to head out to Deer Park,” said Maj. Ray Leonard.
It’s unclear how long the helicopters will be assisting in Eastern Washington.
“We’ll be here until DNR tells us they don’t need us,” Larson said.