JBLM National Guard crews fly into thick of Central Washington wildfires

The hills are covered in black ash and a downtown block has been reduced to rubble, but the town of Pateros is still standing.

The situation is similar in nearby Alta Lake. Large plots of fire-scorched land have left behind only ash and scattered burnt trees.

The Carlton Complex fire has scorched more than a quarter of a million acres across central Washington, making it the largest wildfire currently burning in the state and the largest in state history. The fire was 52 percent contained as of Thursday with dozens of ground crews and hundreds of fire engines fighting to put it out.

Tacoma area aviators are also helping turn the corner on the massive blaze.

“It’s heart breaking, it really is,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jameson Peters, a pilot with the Washington Army National Guard out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Members of Charlie Company of the 1-140th Aviation Regiment have been at the scene for eight days, dropping water from a bucket attached to their Blackhawk helicopters. The unit is using four choppers to help fight the flames.

They were waiting to be given a mission around noon Thursday. First Sgt. Mark Logan said they had flown only three hours the past two days but expect action to pick up as rain clouds move out and hotter temperatures return.

The guardsmen lost virtually all communication with JBLM on Wednesday. Logan said the unit was able to send one email to their command that night after finding a WiFi connection at a bar in town.

National Guard officials said the 26-member unit moved its staging area to the Omak Airport three days ago from a previous location in the Methow Valley. Officials said the new location allows the choppers to launch to a greater fire area, and also has fueling capabilities.

Peters said working 14-hour days has been a difficult schedule to maintain over the past week, but the long hours fighting fires and maintaining the aircraft and other equipment are worth it.

Soldiers see the service as a way to help their fellow Washingtonians. The tragic scenes of burnt homes and frantic families drive home the consequences of wildfires.

“It’s a really good feeling to directly impact our fellow citizens,” said Logan. “It’s really gratifying, especially when you get to interact with people on the ground.”

Logan said the unit is staying in the same Omak hotel with many community members affected by the fire. He said there’s no shortage of gratitude, with some citizens offering to buy soldiers’ dinners and pay for their laundry.

The chopper crews can spend six to seven hours a day in the air dropping an average of 30 to 40 buckets on flames, said Sgt. Joey Becker, a crew member and mechanic on the helicopters.

He said the buckets can drop 660 gallons of water at one time. Becker has to maneuver the orange bucket between trees, while ensuring it’s low enough to put out the flames.

As a pilot, Peters said it’s his first instinct to attack a fire head on, which may not always be in line with the overall fire strategy. But in the end, he knows the choppers are just one part in a much larger firefighting operation, which includes crews on the ground.

Recent wet weather was a change in the hot and dry pattern, and the JBLM soldiers saw first-hand how vulnerable the area is to the elements. A bolt of lightning struck a hill by the airport, starting a small fire not far from where the soldiers were staying. Becker said the fire did not expand and was put out by the rain.

Meanwhile, other wildfires in the state continue to burn.

The Chiwaukum Complex fire near Leavenworth was 10 percent contained as of Thursday and had burned 12,225 acres, according to the Associated Press.

The Mills Canyon fire near Entiat was 90 percent contained and had burned 22,571 acres.