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Who Activates National Guard Helicopters For Oklahoma Wildfires?

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A Black Hawk helicopter drops water over a grassfire near Prue Wednesday, March 23, 2011. A Black Hawk helicopter drops water over a grassfire near Prue Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
An Oklahoma Army National Guard Helicopter collects water to drop on a fire Wednesday, April 6, 2011. An Oklahoma Army National Guard Helicopter collects water to drop on a fire Wednesday, April 6, 2011.
Image of Chris Blackburn, Keystone Fire Chief, on April 7, 2011. Image of Chris Blackburn, Keystone Fire Chief, on April 7, 2011.

Craig Day, News On 6

NEAR KEYSTONE LAKE, Oklahoma -- National Guard helicopters are being used on many of the wildfires burning this week in Oklahoma.

The state has four of them, two in Tulsa and two in Lexington. Crews have been on standby since last Sunday.

So how does the state decide when to use the helicopters?

3/24/2011 Related Story: Helicopter Crews Describe Battle Against Oklahoma Grassfires

At the Keystone Fire Department, volunteers are catching their breath and now crossing their fingers. They're hoping for a break.

"Had us pretty stretched out, pretty thin," Chris Blackburn, Keystone Fire Chief, said.

The volunteers are coming off 28 straight hours of fighting wildfires. Two fires burned more than 2,000 acres.

4/6/2011 Related Story: Keystone Fire Chief Surveys Wildfires From SkyNews6

"Between two fires, we probably had 50 to 60 homes that are in danger the whole time those two were going," Blackburn said.

Firefighters finally got the upper hand, with the help of National Guard helicopters dumping 600 gallons of water at a time.

"They can spot those fires where they're at a lot easier for us, and they can drop that water in there where they can get the main load of the heat off of us so we can get the ground crews closer to it," Blackburn said.

When ground crews need help, they have to request it from the state emergency operations center. Local incident commanders like Chris Blackburn are then put in touch with state forestry leaders who determine what resources are needed, whether it's bulldozers or aerial support.

"We've got quite a bit of maintenance ahead of us to bring them back up," he said.

The forestry service, Oklahoma's lead agency for wildfires, makes the final decision on where the helicopters go. Then it's coordinated between the operations center and the Guard.

"They start looking again structures in danger, and things like that, compared to a fire that is just burning in the open, they're going to put it toward saving those structures," Blackburn said.

With the Keystone fires, the help from the air, made a big difference, now they hope for help from above in the form of rain.

While they're hoping for the wildfire season comes to end soon, then fundraising season begins for many volunteer departments across Oklahoma.

Keystone, for example, in just the past week has gone through fuel that would normally have lasted them two and a half months. Many volunteer departments all across the state are in the same situation.

4/6/2011 Related Story: Firefighters, Neighbors Help Save Family's Home Near Mannford

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