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Nevada National Guard fights Caldor Fire from the air

Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 8:56 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - “I love being a pilot,” says Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steve Nielsen.

Nielsen pilots a Chinook Helicopter. The Nevada National Guardsman and four other crew members work together to drop water on the flames of the Caldor Fire.

“Sometimes fighting fires can be more dangerous than combat operations,” says Nielsen. “Because of everything that is going on. There is smoke there is fire, other aircraft, you are at max performance in the aircraft. There is other aircraft. Multiple radios going off. And then there are the flames and the intensity of the heat,” he says.

Nielsen, a Carson City native, says he joined the Army in 1994, was placed in aviation and never looked back. He has been a Chinook Pilot just about his entire career and brought his expertise to the guard in 2003.

“The main priority is to protect people,” says Nielsen. “We did a lot of fighting to protect structures out there. And then we tried to slow the fire down because it is in such a remote area,” he says.

He shows a bucket which, once attached to the helicopter, holds 2,000 gallons of water. The crew finds water at a lake or other source, fills up, and then is directed to where a drop needs to go.

He can fly up to seven hours a day before he needs to shut down for a break.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Fugett has been flying fire missions for the last six years.

As a C-130 pilot he is responsible for dropping 3,000 gallons of retardant on fires.

The Caldor Fire is just the latest incident.

“So the Caldor, yes it is one we have been fighting,” says Fugett. “But we’ve been fighting 26 fires up and down the west coast,” he says.

Fugett says fire missions are different in that he’s taking direction from a civilian on the ground who helps direct the retardant in the right spot.

“The drop isn’t over when you pull and 3,000 gallons are out of the plane,” says Fugett. “Now I have to figure out how to escape out of there. I’m low to the ground, I am heavy. Typically, really high altitudes. And I am very slow,” he says.

He can perform 10 drops in a shift. And he says no two fires are the same. That is the challenge and the thrill of the job he says. But there is something more.

“When someone comes up to you and says hey, you saved my home a couple of nights ago, it is all worth it.”

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