CORONADO, Calif. (NNS) -- Sailors assigned to the "High Rollers" of Helicopter Sea Combat Support (HSC) 85 continue putting their firefighting skills to use, working hand-in-hand with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) for the fourth consecutive day to combat the Southern California wildfires.
"Naval aviation is providing aircraft, and we will continue to do so because we are a part of this community, and we'll do everything we can, in every way we can, to help out when the community is in trouble," said Rear Adm. Patrick E. McGrath, vice commander, Naval Air Forces.
On the morning of Oct. 22, the squadron received the official request for help from Cal Fire and two HSC-85 firefighting crews were among the first three aircraft in the air that afternoon.
"The Navy is part of the San Diego community, and when an event like this happens, we need to plan well in advance and work closely with the firefighting people in the community," said McGrath. "That's why we were able to put water on the fires much sooner and much more safely than we were before."
Since the California Cedar Fires of 2003, HSC-85 has frequently trained with Cal Fire to prepare for fire disasters, like the present San Diego blaze.
"We learned that we need to be in a partnership and directly working with Cal Fire," said McGrath. "Having the Cal Fire representatives on our aircraft allows us to safely get in and out of the areas and safely drop water where it needs to be. This is a great partnership, and I think that it will be strengthened by this event and continue to grow."
Following the Cedar Fires, the Navy and Cal Fire met to discuss lessons they learned from the previous fire disaster.
HSC-85, based at Naval Air Station North Island, routinely performed firefighting missions at San Clemente Island Range Complex and is the only military squadron in the area with specialized firefighting equipment and a skilled crew trained for aerial firefighting.
"We're experienced aviators, and we're able to adapt quickly, but it helps to have their expertise," said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Wilderman, HSC-85 operations officer who flew some of the recent firefighting missions.
The squadron's crew was familiar with how to use the bucket and how to extinguish fires, but the collaboration with Cal Fire has been beneficial for exercising tactics on a larger scale.
"It's a great relationship, a great training program," said Cmdr. James Cluxton, commanding officer of HSC-85. "I think it's mutually beneficial for both sides, so that's why I think it works really well."
The Navy and Cal Fire worked together for several years to create a joint instruction with specific flow charts detailing how the two units would collaborate in case of another fire disaster.
"Without the agreement, we couldn't be accurately fighting the fires," said Jim Barthol, San Diego Cal Fire air manager. "They're already pre-trained, and they know the procedures and the processes. We worked not as the Navy and the fire department, but as one firefighting entity."
The training program was established with Cal Fire to provide the squadron with a ground school.
"We started training with Cal Fire in 2004, and we have kept building on that training every year," said Wilderman.
A Cal Fire representative meets with the squadron at least once a year to discuss air space management, general fire techniques, different terms used during firefighting and procedures for getting in and out of the fire scene.
"It's important for us to work together, because it's an extremely dangerous and complex situation out there," said Cluxton. "Cal Fire are the experts in firefighting, and we're here to help them if they need it."
Effective communication between HSC-85 and Cal Fire is a key element for combating a fire disaster.
"We got a call from Cal Fire on Sunday afternoon asking what kind of assets we had," said Cluxton. "That's when we started preparing and putting crews together."
The 2006 Horse Fire marked the first time a San Diego-based unit actively supported Cal Fire. In 2007, HSC-85 continues to support Cal Fire using its assets to help fight the most recent Witch Creek and Harris Ranch fires in San Diego County.
"From our perspective, our agreement and relationship with Cal Fire has been fantastic," said Cluxton. "We will continue to support them for as long as they need us. If we can help them, it helps the community, and that's what we're here for."
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