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144th FW Supports Creek Fire Response

Members from Cal Fire, the National Forestry Service, the California National Guard, the Fresno Country Sheriff's Department, and other response organizations meet, Sept. 6, 2020, at Sierra High School in Tollhouse, Calif. which was used as the Creek Fire Emergency Operations Center and Incident Command Post.

Members from Cal Fire, the National Forestry Service, the California National Guard, the Fresno Country Sheriff's Department, and other response organizations meet, Sept. 6, 2020, at Sierra High School in Tollhouse, Calif. which was used as the Creek Fire Emergency Operations Center and Incident Command Post.

A team of nine hikers exits a California Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk after being rescued from the Creek Fire Sept. 8, 2020, at Muir Trail Ranch in the Sierra National Forest, Fresno County, California.

A team of nine hikers exits a California Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk after being rescued from the Creek Fire Sept. 8, 2020, at Muir Trail Ranch in the Sierra National Forest, Fresno County, California. The hikers included a Cal Guard helicopter mechanic and four Cal Guard contractors who were on an annual back-packing event. The Soldier was reported missing for two days after the fire knocked out communications. The Soldier and his team were found safe. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Eddie Siguenza)

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flown by 163d Attack Wing pilot Lt. Col. Paul Brockmeier, with sensor operator Master Sgt. Anthony Martinez, views the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California in transit to a fire mission in northern California, late August, 2020.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flown by 163d Attack Wing pilot Lt. Col. Paul Brockmeier, with sensor operator Master Sgt. Anthony Martinez, views the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California in transit to a fire mission in northern California, late August, 2020. “The beauty of the sunsets doesn’t begin to mitigate the tragedy of the fires,” said Brockmeier. “But it’s always a beautiful evening when you’re flying to the aid of your fellow Californians.” (Photo courtesy of Chalk 2 for the 163d Attack Wing)

Fresno Air National Guard --

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Cesar Gonzalez, 144th Fighter Wing Inspections officer, recently returned from the Creek Fire Incident Command Post in Fresno County after serving as the Joint Forces Headquarters liaison officer and a key resource to partner agencies, for 16 straight days from Sept. 8 to Sept. 23, 2020.

As a California National Guard liaison officer at the Incident Command Post, Lt. Col. Gonzalez had to maintain constant contact with all the partner agencies, track their capabilities and needs, and communicate the Cal Guard’s resources and abilities to augment or support response efforts.

“Whenever there is a large-scale response effort or emergency within the state, the Governor can deploy the National Guard to support both statewide and local civilian agencies,” said Gonzalez. “If their resources are spread thin or if they do not have the capability to conduct operations, the National Guard may be tasked to provide those capabilities.”

As a support agency, the Cal Guard was able to provide numerous capabilities to support and assist Cal Fire, the National Forest Service, the California Office of Emergency Services, the Great Basin National Incident Management Team, the Fresno Sheriff’s Department, and the Madera Sheriff’s Department.  These multiple agencies represented the unified command in responding to emergencies caused by the Creek Fire.

“One of the most well-known assists from the Cal Guard was when the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade evacuated hundreds of people who had become trapped by the fires,” said Gonzalez. “Additionally, the Cal Guard provided fuel resources, enhanced fire-mapping capabilities, personnel tracking using GPS trackers, communication set up and maintenance, hand crews, and manpower.”

The diesel refueling needs exceeded the fire response agencies’ and contractors’ capabilities, so the Cal Guard was able to step in and provide those resources.

“The diesel refueling capability was critical to controlling the northwest perimeter of the fire. We were able to provide a 5,000-gallon refueling truck and a 2,500-gallon fuel tender,” said Gonzalez. “Without those resources to fuel fire engines, dozers, and other heavy equipment, the response effort would have been halted, and the fire would have likely moved further west.”

Besides the enhanced capabilities that the Cal Guard provides to precisely monitor the fire’s perimeter, the Cal Guard fire mapping team identified an unknown hot spot outside of the eastern perimeter. The thick smoke prevented Cal Fire crews from identifying the burning hot spot. Gonzalez said an ember had likely ignited that area outside the perimeter, which would have surrounded some Cal Fire firefighters.

“Luckily, we are able to identify that hot spot and communicate it to the incident command, allowing Cal Fire firefighters to first attack that spot before moving back to the main fire perimeter,” said Gonzalez. “If we hadn’t identified it, those firefighters would have been in danger.”

Capt. Max Montellano, 144th FW Civil Engineering Squadron officer, was at the Incident command post for the first few days.

“Capt. Montellano was a huge help and gave me an excellent hand off, enabling me to get in there and make connections, and get right to work,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez mentioned how tirelessly everyone worked during his time there. They had long days and most people could not take days off. Crews also rotated 24-hour shifts both on the fire line and at the command post.

“One of the most interesting things about working in this type of environment, is seeing how each agency identifies, processes, executes, and even funds their response,” said Gonzalez. “Each agency is constantly assessing needs and identifying their abilities; the options are then weighed, chosen, approved, and then it happens. It’s like a machine.”

During his last few days at the incident command post, Lt. Col. Gonzalez completed his hand off to another Cal Guard liaison and observed many of the other organizations also completing hand offs as personnel changed.

“As new personnel joined the mission, they were ready to go. They were eager to do everything they could to help people and get this fire as controlled as possible,” said Gonzalez. “I am proud and honored that I was able to be part of such a dedicated and passionate team.”