National Guard Black Hawks Train At East Jemez Interagency Fire Center

A Black Hawk helicopter flies towards a drop area with a ‘Bambi’ bucket of water as a second Black Hawk awaits its turn to run the training exercise. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

A Black Hawk helicopter dips a Bambi bucket into the 23,000 water tank Thursday at the East Jemez Interagency Fire Center at TA-49. Note the flight engineer’s legs hanging out the door. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Los Alamos National Laboratory Wildland Fire Program Manager Richard Nieto, left, chats with Santa Fe National Forest Helicopter Program Manager Brian Kliesen Thursday. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

The Los Alamos Reporter checks out the cockpit of one of three National Guard Black Hawk helicopters Thursday at the East Jemez Interagency Fire Center. Photo by Lt. Greg Bode

Looking towards the cockpit in a Black Hawk helicopter. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


The East Jemez Interagency Fire Center at TA-49 just three miles east of the Bandelier National Monument entrance on State Route 4 hosted three National Guard Black Hawk UH-60 helicopters and their crews Wednesday and Thursday. The Los Alamos Reporter visited the Fire Center Thursday along with several photographers, videographers and communication folks from Los Alamos National Laboratory and watched the Black Hawks in action.

The group was accompanied by LANL Wildland Fire Management Officer Richard Nieto who has been in the wildland fire management business for more than 35 years, including 21 years with the U.S. Forest Service. Nieto explained that the Fire Center houses personnel from the Santa Fe National Forest, the National Park Service and some LANL employees. It is also home to the SFNF Helitack Crew and a helicopter crew contracted by SFNF from around mid-April to July.

“Today we have three Black Hawk ships coming in. To fight wildfires we have to use all federal contracted ships first and then the National Guard comes in. At this time of the year, New Mexico’s fire season kicks in and we are beginning to tax resources,” Nieto said. “Our proactive move was to bring in the Guard and start getting them trained up to get ready for the fire season case we have to call them out. What they are doing right now is proficiency drops.”

As spectators watched, a Black Hawk “ship” flew close to the Fire Center with an orange “Bambi” bucket suspended by a cable. The helicopter hovered over a stationary 23,000-gallon steel field tank, dipped the Bambi in and left full of water. Nieto said the buckets can carry up to 6,000 gallons depending on several factors including temperature and humidity conditions. The buckets have a release ship controlled by a flight engineer aboard the helicopter. The helicopters travel to the area where they are to drop the water, communicating with ground crews to ensure the area is clear of people. During training each run is graded for accuracy and proficiency.

Nieto said the Guard ships have night vision and numerous other capabilities besides being able to do the water drops.  He said in most places ambulances would be used to bring out a firefighter injured at a fire but that in places in remote areas of high elevation, the Black Hawks work really well. He noted that one of the biggest issues with the Black Hawks is the rotors and this is why there is a flight engineer on both sides of the helicopters keeping an eye on the position of the rotors.

If you think the Black Hawks look different when they are on fire duty, it’s because the crews keep buckets of orange paint staged so that they can paint the required markings on specific areas of the helicopter including the tail number.

With wildfires in 16 New Mexico counties as of Saturday afternoon, helicopters were being used to haul water to the Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains. Asked if the National Guard helicopters were being utilized for that fire, a LANL spokesman responded that “all aerial operations for the Cerro Pelado fire are being coordinated by the US Forest Service – Santa Fe National Forest.

National Guard personnel at the East Jemez Interagency Fire Center Thursday. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Tricia Ware of LANL Communications and External Affairs chats with CW2 Dominic Anderson Thursday about the features of the Black Hawk helicopter. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Lt. Greg Bode shows the set-up inside a Black Hawk helicopter Thursday at the East Jemez Interagency Fire Center. Photo by Maire O’Neill/