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WADS blazes in to help

McCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- For the first time in its history, the Western Air Defense Sector, a unit of the Washington Air National Guard, recently supported U.S. Northern Command's Defense Support to Civil Authority mission by helping to fight California wildfires.

While still focusing on their normal daily duties of "Guarding America's Skies," the folks at WADS took on the intense, vital role of maintaining visibility on all airborne fire fighting assets over the state of California while simultaneously providing air defense for the President when he visited the impacted areas.

WADS maintained radar and radio links with the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, US Air Force and Navy assets. The primary fire fighting aircraft included ANG and AFRES C-130 Hercules turboprop aircraft modified to carry the 3,000 gallon tanks of pressurized fire retardant in the Military Aircraft Fire Fighting System. A US Navy P-3 aircraft, and an ANG RC-26 twin turboprop aircraft, both modified with full motion video downlink capabilities, provided real time situational awareness of the fires' rapidly changing directions.

The P-3 and the RC-26 spotted fires and structures in the path of the fire with their Full Motion Video systems. While the RC-26 reported directly to California State officials, the responsibility fell on WADS to communicate any new locations of possible interest to the P-3 and direct them to investigate. Conversely, whenever the P-3 crew discovered a new fire, WADS passed the coordinates of the new fire to 601st Air and Space Operations Center, at Tyndall AFB, Fla., who coordinated new instructions with fire fighting officials for transmission to the P-3.

The Sector also played a critical role in maintaining situational awareness on the location of all other airborne military firefighting assets engaged in the fight including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles such as the NASA Predator and the U.S. Air Force Global Hawk.

Complicating the duties at the Sector were the simultaneous tasks of facilitating the fire fighting efforts while enforcing restricted airspace around the President when he visited the impacted areas. The President literally stood underneath the airspace where active fire fighting with airborne fire planes was occurring.

"Usually, we clear out a 30 nautical mile circle around him, but we couldn't do that without impacting the fire fighting effort," said Sector Commander Col. Paul Gruver. "So we had to be extremely aggressive about identifying every radar track anywhere near the president."

To help, at the Sector commander's request, the Department of Forestry made available one of their senior representatives with a high tech. system the department uses to track fire fighting airborne assets in real time.

"If one of the fire airplanes wasn't transmitting the correct code, we instantly checked with the Forest Service rep to confirm that the track our systems saw was friendly," Colonel Gruver said. "This very proactive approach avoided unnecessarily scrambling fighters into the fire fighting area, while providing full security to the President while he was supporting the fire fighters and citizens."

This is the first time WADS demonstrated its unique capability to simultaneously use its national network of air defense radars and radios to protect our national leadership and infrastructure, while aiding efforts to protect its citizens from natural disasters, anywhere in the country.

The Sector, located at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., uses radars and communications systems to monitor air traffic and provide air defense for approximately 72 percent of the Continental United States, from the Mississippi River west.