How the US military is helping put down Hawaii’s wildfires


(LAHAINA, Hawaii) — The U.S. military’s response to the devastating wildfires on Maui was crucial in the early response to the blazes that have devastated the island and the historic town of Lahaina.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Hawaii’s National Guard and active-duty forces on the island have all pitched in to help.

Given the magnitude of Tuesday night’s fire that placed so many people in harm’s way in Lahaina and close to the water’s edge it was the U.S. Coast Guard that was first to respond, sending a Dolphin MH-65 helicopter and a 45-foot Medium Response Boat to rescue 17 survivors who had plunged into the waters off of Lahaina as the fire swept through the town.

The active-duty military has a major presence on Hawaii with nearly 40,000 active-duty military personnel stationed on 14 major military bases, most of them on Oahu, but as with most natural disasters, the military’s first response falls to a state’s National Guard under the command of a state’s governor.

And that’s what happened Tuesday night as Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who was serving as acting governor while Gov. Josh Green was out of state, activated Hawaii’s National Guard and dozens of guardsmen were ordered to assist with traffic control on both Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii.

The National Guard’s aviation unit was also activated to assist with fire suppression on both islands once the winds died down enough.

However, the number of Hawaii National Guard helicopters available to assist was less than normal since many of them were in transit back to Hawaii after having participated in a large exercise in Louisiana.

Guardsmen supported the firefighting efforts on Tuesday by doing 58 aerial water drops of more than 100,000 gallons of water, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

But additional resources were needed and the active-duty military resources available in Hawaii were called upon to assist.

The Army’s active-duty 25th Infantry Division, based on the neighboring island of Oahu, was readied to provide some of its helicopters to assist with firefighting efforts and Navy aviation units on Oahu were placed on stand-by to assist with local search and rescue if needed.

By Wednesday morning, two Blackhawk UH-60’s and another Chinook from the 25th Infantry Division were sent to the Big Island to do the same with the fires that were blazing there.

MH-60R Seahawk helicopters from the Navy’s Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 37 were also sent to Maui to help the US Coast Guard’s search and recovery operations.

U.S. Air Force C-17’s have also transported Honolulu Fire Department vehicles and personnel to Maui to assist with search and rescue efforts and fire suppression.

As of Thursday, 134 Hawaii National Guardsmen had been activated to assist local authorities, 99 from the Army National Guard and 35 from the Air National Guard.

Since the initial water rescues, Coast Guard Station Maui boat crews have operated on shore and have helped locate as many as 40 survivors.

All of the active-duty and National Guard forces assisting on Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii are under the command of Maj. Gen. Kenneth S. Hara, the adjutant general for the State of Hawaii.

Creating unified commands under the authority of the state’s top Guard officer has become standard practice when both reserve and active duty military forces respond to natural disasters.

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