Oregon's Firefighting Helicopters Are Deployed in Afghanistan as the State Burns

Six CH-47 chinooks aren’t available to fight the fires because they deployed to Afghanistan in May.
September 11, 2020, 3:43pm
Screen Shot 2020-09-11 at 11
Image: Oregon National Guard

Huge swaths of Oregon are on fire, and the state has evacuated 500,000 residents. Teams of firefighters are battling the blaze, but more than 900,000 acres of forest have already been lost to the fire. Key to the fight against a large wildfire like this are helicopters—Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks are critical for moving people and deploying water to help contain the blaze. The Oregon National Guard has four Black Hawks and six Chinooks, but the Chinooks aren’t available to fight the fire right now because they’ve been deployed to Afghanistan.

In July, the National Guard published an article titled "Oregon National Guard members train to battle wildland fires." That article notes that the Oregon National Guard "has HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and the newer F-Model CH-47 Chinook helicopters to support the Oregon Department of Forestry" in the fight against wildfires. These Chinooks were "equipped with water buckets" and deployed in 2018 to fight forest fires in the state.

But the Chinooks are currently in Afghanistan, not helping Americans here at home. The Oregon National Guard sent 60 soldiers and six of its Chinooks to Afghanistan in May. “With the potential to drawn down troops, Chinooks are important for their heavy lift capabilities as they can carry equipment from one location to another efficiently,” Lt. Col. Joe Mendel said in a press release. The National Guard memorialized the departure of the Chinooks in a ceremony which it filmed and uploaded to the internet. As a reminder, today is the 19th anniversary of 9/11, and America has been embroiled in a military conflict in Afghanistan for almost as long.

Chinooks are workhorses. Classified as a transport vehicle, they’re great for moving cargo and humans in and out of difficult terrain. They’re popular in Afghanistan because much of the terrain is treacherous and high altitude. Moving at speeds up to 188 miles per hour, the Chinook can transport up to 44 people and carry a payload of 26,000 pounds. It can transport troops and supplies at breakneck speeds into some of the hardest to reach areas of the country. 

It’s also great at evacuating people from wildfire stricken areas and carrying bambi buckets to extinguish flames. Chinooks carry large bambi buckets capable of holding 2,000 gallons of water. The 18,000 pounds of water can cover 100 meters of forest. And at almost 200 miles per hour, the Chinooks can dump a lot of water very quickly.

But Oregon doesn’t have its Chinooks because it sent them to Afghanistan in May, just months before the start of wildfire season. The Oregon National Guard is instead relying on six smaller Black Hawks and one UH-72 Lakota. Five of the Black Hawks are carrying bambi buckets while the other does search and rescue. The Black Hawks are faster but can only carry around 10 people and support a weight of 2,600 pounds. A Black Hawk’s bambi bucket only carries 600 gallons of water, significantly less than the 2,000 gallons of the Chinook.