As the state of Louisiana deals with unprecedented wildfires amid serious drought, the Louisiana National Guard men and women continue to display their abilities to respond at a moment’s notice, alongside government agencies, forestry experts, firefighters, first responders, and Louisiana citizens. While the LANG has provided aviation and engineer assets to combat the wildfires across the state, some service members have been assigned to missions to provide assistance as needed in these affected areas. LANG Soldiers are helping out wherever it is necessary and doing whatever is needed to keep the citizens of Louisiana safe in a never ending effort to “Protect What Matters.”
Since Louisiana National Guard aviation assets began water-drop missions on August 23rd, LANG and Emergency Management Assistance Compact helicopter crews have dropped more than 1.28 million gallons of water over 2,241 loads across 475 hours of flight time in support of the effort to combat wildfires that have affected several parishes in Louisiana. In addition, LANG dozers have established 232 miles for firebreak. As with any state of emergency, the LANG is prepared to provide support to civilian authorities throughout Louisiana to protect key assets and ensure the health and public safety of the citizens of Louisiana.
LANG and EMAC helicopter crews are continuing their mission of water-drop operations in Beauregard, Sabine, and Vernon Parishes in coordination with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s office and local agencies in fighting the wildfires in the region.
The helicopter crews have utilized bambi buckets, which allows them to draw water from any open water source in extremely remote locations, to carry and drop water onto fires. The versatility of the helicopter and bambi bucket combination allow crews to maximize the number of water drops performed during their on-station time.
The augmentation to the LANG aerial firefighting efforts, through EMAC support from the Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas National Guard, have resulted in a rotation of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and CH-47 Chinook helicopters that have provided over 385 flight hours of aid from the time LANG assets were activated in response to the wildfires.
Engineers with the Louisiana National Guard’s 225th Engineer Brigade were activated to assist the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry in fighting wildfires. Since August 23rd, LANG engineers have been activated to use approximately 34 bulldozers to increase the width of existing firebreaks in Beauregard, Vernon, and Sabine Parishes to prevent the spread of wildfires, such as the Tiger Island fire.
“For Louisiana, this is a unique mission for our engineers. I have not been involved in this type of response in my 18 years of service,” said Maj. Michael D’Aguiar, executive officer of the 527th Engineer Battalion. “The unpredictability of wildfires and its ability to continuously change, versus a hurricane or tornado response, brings about a very different perspective in which you must look at how we apply our engineering assets to solve this very complex problem.”
In addition to the Tiger Island fire, LANG engineers have responded in multiple areas to include Pirates Cove and Cooter’s Bog. The response in Cooter’s Bog presented a unique opportunity to the engineers by widening and creating firebreaks along pipelines that lead to a natural gas plant. “Our job is to widen this existing firebreak to prevent the fire east of us from spreading towards the gas plant to the west of us,” said Shreveport native Staff Sgt. Zachary Attaway with the 1023rd Engineer Vertical Construction Company.
Attaway, who has never responded to wildfires before now, explained the value of experience that his engineers are receiving while working alongside community partners to clear the firebreaks. “The stakes are higher. You have to be more vigilant and pay more attention because there are fires flaring up as we are operating,” said Attaway. “It helps the operators with their attention to detail and how careful they need to be while working as a team and being able to communicate clearly.”
LANG and EMAC Soldiers are anticipated to accumulate record statistics for Louisiana as they continue support efforts towards these relief efforts.
On August 26th, one such mission occurred in Vernon Parish. As soldiers were prepositioned around the state, ready to respond to any call for help, the 61st Troop Command, based out of Carville, was tasked with an evacuation request. Specifically, the 61st TC assisted with the evacuation of the Woodlands Healthcare Center that evening. LANG provided eight Soldiers from the 927th Engineer Company, 61st Troop Command, to assist with the loading of 135 residents from the facility onto charter buses to be relocated across the region. The evacuation was a precaution as the wildfires were spreading into the rural parts of the parish; therefore, getting the citizens to a safer location was paramount for this mission. In addition to the mission of evacuating the healthcare center, service members also assisted with detecting and controlling a pop-up fire.
On August 30th, Chief Warrant Officer 5s Hugh Junca and Dale Poe, along with Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dusty Bernard, were en route back to the Pineville area after conducting site visits to the affected areas of Cooter’s Bog and DeRidder in Beauregard Parish. While traveling, they noticed a faint column of smoke bellowing up from the Grayson Marler Road area on Highway 121 near the city of Otis. The three warrant officers decided to investigate the source of the smoke, and after discussions with several already alerted and concerned residents in the area, determined that the smoke was coming from a location behind residential housing within close proximity.
After contacting first responders, the LANG warrant officers searched behind residential housing and found a growing fire that was approximately 100 yards into the woods. Upon making this discovery, the service members hurried back to the residences and began to assist with an evacuation plan. The primary focus became getting the affected citizens to a safer area until the fire could be contained. Once the residents were safe, Junca, Poe, and Bernard offered assistance to the firefighters as they arrived on the scene. Both LANG and the local fire authorities helped alert the neighboring residents and control the blaze. After the passing of some time, the fire was contained by the firefighters. It was at that point that the service members continued on their journey back to the Pineville area.
As a result of the unprecedented fires, Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) announced that FEMA has approved Louisiana’s request for Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAG) declaration to help with wildfire fighting efforts, including for the Highway 113 Fire in Vernon and Rapides parishes. The approval brings the total number of FMAGs to four, including the Ida Fire and Lions Camp Fire in Vernon Parish and the Tiger Island Fire in Beauregard Parish. Firefighting costs eligible for FMAG coverage may include expenses for field camps, repair and replacement tools, mobilization and demobilization activities, equipment use, and materials and supplies. The announcement came as Gov. Edwards held a Unified Command Group (UCG) meeting with all of the responding agencies who continue to provide state resources and assistance to all parishes impacted by the wildfires.
“We remain in constant communication with all of our federal partners and are grateful for their rapid approval of our latest request for assistance in fighting the Highway 113 Fire in Vernon and Rapides parishes,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards. “Louisiana is still facing unpredictable and dangerous conditions as we continue to fight wildfires across the state.”
As a reminder, the statewide burn ban remains in place until further notice, and there are no exceptions of any kind. “This is a long-term event and until we get a significant amount of rain, we must remain vigilant,” said Gov. Edwards. “Our state is still a tinderbox and there are still fires popping up all over. Do not burn anything. We must do all we can to prevent the further spread of wildfires and ease the stress on our responders.”
Citizens can join the recovery effort through a fund established at the Central Louisiana Community Foundation (CLCF). In late August, CLCF opened the Louisiana Strong Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund to provide financial resources to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs for the people and places affected by the devastating wildfires in Central Louisiana. Central Louisiana Community Foundation is working in close collaboration with state and parish leaders, nonprofit organizations, first responders, and community members to get an understanding of the quickly evolving priorities.
As wildfires have devastated homes, displaced families, and disrupted lives, the Louisiana Strong Fund embarks on a four-phase plan that encompasses immediate relief, long-term recovery, and proactive rebuilding. CLCF encourages you to consider joining us in this endeavor by donating to the Louisiana Strong Fund. Your support will directly impact the lives of those affected, ensuring swift aid reaches those in dire need, supporting long-term recovery efforts, and fostering a resilient future for Central Louisiana.
Donating is easy; simply visit clcf.net or scan the QR code on this page to contribute to the fund. Your contribution, no matter the size, sends a powerful message of unity and support that resonates across our region. By coming together, supporting our neighbors and the soldiers of the Louisiana National Guard, and making contributions to funds like the Louisiana Strong Fund, we can continue to Protect What Matters in Cenla.
Sgt. 1st Class Scott D. Longstreet, Staff Sgt. David C. Kirtland, the Louisiana National Guard Public Affairs Office, and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness contributed to this article.