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By Ileen Kennedy
2nd General Aviation Support Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment
Black Hawk helicopter aircrews from 2nd General Aviation Support Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, Utah National Guard, were called in to fight the Saddle Fire, May 14, 2020.
Two UH-60 Black Hawks were in the air above Midway by 9 a.m. and dropped 15 bucket loads of water on the fire before having to refuel in Heber, Utah around 11 a.m.
Initially, the aircraft pulled water from a catch pond in the middle of a neighborhood and then were asked to move much further away, flying to Deer Creek Reservoir to dip water.
"We had two dip sites, we had people around the first dip site, we had people walking in front of the aircraft which was unsafe," said Chief Warrant 3 Paul Merrill, one of the pilots of the Black Hawk. "So they moved us off of that and put us down to Deer Creek Reservoir. That was about a seven-minute flight from the fire. Once law enforcement got all that secure they put us back and had us dipping out of the catch pond again, which made it so we were making about four minute returns. We were able to put maybe double the water on the fire then when we were having to go all the way to Deer Creek."
The fire was in an area with steep terrain and limited access, according to fire crews, making it crucial for support from the air. Strong and erratic winds spread the flames from 200 acres Tuesday night to 630 acres Wednesday morning, by Wednesday evening it had burned 683 acres and was listed as 70 percent contained.
"The terrain was very steep and it was a very short flight between where we were dipping water and where we were dropping water, so it was a pretty significant climb. The wind changed about every third dip so we were having to reassess where the winds would be coming from and how we were able to drop, because we would be dropping into a head wind and then we would be dropping into a tailwind," said Merrill.
Many homes were in close proximity to the fire and some were evacuated but fire officials said no structures were threatened.
"The fire had burned down to maybe within 50 to 100 yards from the backs of the homes, but the wind had pushed it up the hill," said Merrill. "It was probably a quarter mile from the homes when we got there, and then when we left, it was probably half a mile or so up the hill from the homes, and we continued to push it up the hill. The winds were helping and then by the time the second aircrew left they had called off the aircraft because it was burning far enough away from the homes to not be a danger to the homes anymore."
The four aircrew flying two Black Hawks were able to drop between 85 to 90 buckets of water, with a little more than 13 hours of flying.
"We found out about the fire the night before and within 12 hours we had aircraft on the fire," said Merrill. "It shows how well our maintainers do to keep our aircraft in the state of readiness, to be able to launch with that short of notice. It shows how dedicated they are to get in and get the aircraft ready and get them painted and loaded. Without those maintainers and the guys that get the aircraft ready, being as good at their job as they are, it certainly wouldn't go as easy and we wouldn't be able to respond as quickly as we do."
The fire forced the closures of Wasatch Mountain State Park and the Dutch Hollow Trail System, as well as The Phosphate and The Face trails, officials said Wednesday.
”We had a dry last month, and it has been a little warmer so fuels are susceptible,” said Kait Webb with the Utah Division of Forestry and State Lands. "There is wildfire risk in the state of Utah right now so people really need to be responsible and think about wildfire safety when they are out and about.”
The Black Hawk’s were able to push the fire away from homes and assist in bringing the fire closer to full containment before returning back to the Army Aviation Support Facility in West Jordan.
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