S. Sgt. Jaren Lukach is enjoying his time in the Boundary Waters Canoe and Wilderness Area (BWCA). But he'd rather be enjoying it down on the water.
Instead, the seven-year member of the Minnesota National Guard has been seeing the Duluth Superior National Forest from above, as he and his crew mates drop thousands of gallons of water on the Pagami Creek Fire.
These helicopters are the state's first line of defense right now in the fire, which is now the largest in more than 100 years in the Boundary Waters.
"It's pretty intense," Lukach said over the phone Friday afternoon from the airfield in Ely, about 20 miles away from the closest hotspot. "I got the call when I was on my way to work Tuesday, and we headed into St. Paul. That afternoon we were up here, and that night is when the fire grew by about four times its original size."
Right now, the battle is concentrated on an area between two lakes in the southern end of the BWCA. Lukach, who works with a crew of two to three along with two pilots, uses the wench system inside the Blackhawk to collect water from a lake below, then drops the water on a target a couple of miles away.
Lukach is a member of the 2nd Battalion, 147th Assault Helicopter Battalion based in St. Paul. He drills in St. Cloud, where he is a technician on the Blackhawks and a crew chief.
"You get a couple of Blackhawks, maybe even three, running circuits and just hitting it again and again. After three days now, it looks like we're getting some control," he said of the current mission. "That can change pretty quickly, though."
A downloadable copy of the fire area map is available online, courtesy of WTIP–North Shore Community Radio.
Smoke from the massive fire has already traveled some 400 miles into the Chicago area, as noted by and
Lukach, who did one tour in Iraq back in 2007-8 with his unit, has also fought floods in northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.
"This is kind of similar to that. We're dropping supplies–water or sand–where it's needed. If we have to, we can transition to rescue and be equipped to pull people out of there. But the main thing is to protect lives and to protect the structures from any damage caused by the situation on the ground," he said.
An incident commander on the ground told media outlets yesterday cooler conditions have helped, but today's dry, breezy weather was not the forecast firefighters were hoping for.
There is rain in the forecast for Sunday, but the area could see some thunderstorms.
The Pagami Creek Fire, of course, was caused by lightning.