State sends help to California to fight wildfires

State sends help to California to fight wildfires
FORT LEWIS -- With wildfires blazing across California, National Guardsmen from our state are headed to the firelines to help.

A Chinook helicopter lifted off from Fort Lewis Friday morning with five crewmembers, heading to the Sunshine state.

As many as 1,000 wildfires are burning at once, and they've already scorched more than 150,000 acres.

One of the worst is the massive lightning-sparked wildfire burning through the Los Padres National Forest and toward the town of Big Sur on Thursday. Firefighters rushed to protect about 575 threatened homes and historic structures.

They allowed the fire to rage nearly unchecked through steep mountain forests, where flames torched massive redwoods and sent them toppling.

The blaze was only 3 percent contained, and had burned nearly 42 square miles near the coast about a mile south of Big Sur, officials said.

The fire has destroyed 16 homes and two outbuildings since breaking out Saturday, and officials have issued voluntary evacuation notices to residents in 75 homes along a ridge threatened by the blaze.

So, why is Washington sending a helicopter? It's about water -- a Chinook helicopter's bucket can dump 2,000 gallons at a time.

"Especially for fighting fires, 2,000 gallons, nothing else in the Army can touch us," said one crewmember. "We can lay down an incredible amount of water."

These guardsmen with the 66th Theater Aviation Command have a lot of experience fighting forest fires.

California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made the call for help, and Gov. Gregoire responded with the Chinook.

"I think it's great; I think we need to go," pilot Jim Jackson said.

It will be exhausting and dangerous work, but these guardsmen have seen the pictures of homes burning. They know they can help.

"Our goal is just to make sure we get all of the water we can out to help the community," Jackson said.

The crew will spend at least a week helping California firefighters, longer if needed. They will join crews from 40 other states battling the blazes.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service predicted more dry lightning toward the end of the week, although forecasters did not expect as severe an electrical storm as the area had last weekend, when nearly 8,000 lightning strikes sparked about 800 fires across Northern California.