San Diego

Camp Pendleton-Based U.S. Marines Fight Lilac Fire

U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton helped battle the Lilac Fire burning just miles from their base.

“This is our community, San Diego, these are our friends our neighbors,” said Capt. James Henning with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

He heads up the allocation and preparation of Marine air assets in the region from MCAS Miramar. They assist Cal Fire when they are called upon.

The squadron from Camp Pendleton tapped to fight the Lilac Fire was Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 267.

They provided crews and two UH-1 Yankee Venoms.

U.S. Marine pilot Capt. Jason Lebahn, call sign “Hodor”, understood first-hand how important this mission was.

“I was one of the ones that actually evacuated from my house Thursday night, then came in Friday morning to fight the fire,” said Lebahn.

He was not alone. The squadron says they knew a number of Marines and people who work on base whose homes were threatened and they too had to evacuate.

The benefits of the UH-1Y Venom, the newest variant of the Huey, is that these helicopters can fly low to the ground, perfect for hitting hot spots.

U.S. Marine Sgt. Drew Harmon is an airframe mechanic and aerial Observer.

This was his first time out on a fire, although he has been through the training on base.

“It definitely felt good to apply everything I learned and trained to do in a real-world situation,” Harmon said.

The Marine aircraft is primarily a tool used in defense of the country, so some adaptations had to be made for firefighting.

First, it is designed to blend in with the environment, so the helicopters are painted bright pink and numbered with temporary paint, so that CalFire and other aircraft can see them and communicate.

And very busy smoky airspace Sgt. Harmon had to keep his eyes peeled.

“While we were out flying I was looking out for other aircraft communicating with the pilots,” Harmon said.

Attached to the helicopter is a 320-gallon bucket. Getting it put on correctly and monitoring the drops is also critical in executing the mission.

That is where Marine crew chief LCPL Samantha Huhtala came in.

She is harnessed in the back of the helicopter and has to maneuver carefully to make sure the water hits the right spot.

“So I do have to get down and actually look underneath us to see the bucket,” Huhtala said.

The team fought the Lilac Fire on Friday but the preparation is year round.

When there is fire danger , the military and CalFire work together to have equipment and crews ready.

“We lean forward and anticipate some of those requests, so whenever the request From CalFire comes down we’re ready to support,” says Capt. Henning. 

Capt. Lebahn’s home did survive the fire, and he summed up the feeling of the crew saying even though they train to defend America abroad, “Being able to pay back to American citizens in our backyard that was actually amazing.”

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