Wildfires, meet the Guard's Black Hawks

Two Brooksville helicopters have flown east to help battle the blaze near Daytona Beach.

Published May 11, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Two specially modified Black Hawk helicopters from the Florida Army National Guard's aviation unit in Hernando County have been called in to help fight wildfires that are raging along Florida's east coast.

The aircraft belonging to the Company D, 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment stationed in Brooksville were sent to Flagler County last week to support the Florida Division of Forestry and the Florida Division of Emergency Management in efforts to battle a 2-week-old blaze near Daytona Beach that has consumed more than 7, 000 acres and has sent smoke across the state.

The two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are outfitted with large tanks capable of carrying loads of water to remote areas not accessible by fire trucks. One of the copters, dubbed a "Fire Hawk," features a 1, 000-gallon tank and a snorkel for siphoning water from ponds and lakes. The other aircraft carries a bucket capable of carrying 600 gallons of water at a time.

"It's a relief to have them," said Timber Weller, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry. "It's helping us get the upper hand in bringing the fire under control."

Tinderbox conditions in south and central Florida prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to declare a state of emergency, allowing for federal funds and the use of the National Guard. Two flight crews were sent from Brooksville to a staging area at the Flagler County Airport and placed on standby status before being deployed. High winds have made the wildfires too difficult to control by ground alone.

According to National Guard spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Thomas, four additional UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from Company D, 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment will be made available if the Division of Forestry requests them.

The Guard has an impressive history in fighting wildfires in Florida. During 1998 and 1999 more than 1, 200 personnel helped the Division of Forestry's fire-suppression operations. Guard aircraft flew more than 1, 200 hours and dropped more than 5.5-million gallons of water on wildfires across the state, Guard records show.

Logan Neill can be reached at 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.