EL CAJON, Calif. – Every hour or so at San Diego County's oldest airport, soldiers and firefighters take to the sky and head north on an elaborate mission to fight the Witch Fire.
Some, armed with 660-gallon "Bambi Buckets" will seek out dip sites, lowering their Blackhawk helicopters into the closest reservoir to scoop up what they hope will put out this blaze that's already scorched 197,990 acres as of Saturday.
Buckets started flying Tuesday, but might not end for at least another week and a half, said Cal Fire Capt. Bob Alvarez, the helibase manager for this blaze.
"For the complexity of the amount of agencies — we're talking Marine Corps, Air National Guard, Army National Guard, CDF, the sheriffs and then we have civilian operators as well — to be able to have this thing running as smooth as it is, we're pretty fortunate," Alvarez said.
Among those aircraft are donations of Blackhawks and Chinooks from the California Army National Guard.
"It's all about us being able to help our neighbors," Lt. Col. Christopher Miller said. "We're citizen soldiers; we are neighbors too."
Typically the copters make about 20 dumping runs per flight; their efforts are organized by fire officials in another copter that looks at the needs from above and coordinates with trucks below.
Each major blaze gets its own helibase, Alvarez said.
This week, some lawmakers blasted the time it took to get some of the military aircraft into flight, but Alvarez said there's a chain of command that has to be followed to assemble the trained teams of air firefighters.
"It's not like picking up your phone, calling 911 and everybody just comes to your house," he said. "There's a lot of coordination."