National Guard Black Hawks to Help Fight New Mexico Wildfires

SANTA FE (AP) -- New Mexico will have two National Guard Black Hawk helicopters to help with this year's fire season.

Joanna Prukop, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, announced Thursday the big helicopters would be available for initial fire suppression attacks.

The state requested the helicopters after federal officials earlier this month grounded the nation's large air tankers. The Forest Service and Interior Department last week canceled $30 million in contracts for 33 air tankers, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in 2002, killing five people.

Officials said that instead, they will rely on military planes and other aircraft to fight fires this summer. Members of Congress have since said that up to eight of the tankers could be restored to service if complete records for them can be located and they can be determined to be safe.

The lawmakers and some Western governors have said they need the tankers, which drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry on forest fires.

``We are working closely with our federal partners to place additional fire resources around the state,'' Prukop said. ``The state of New Mexico and our partners are doing everything possible to counter the loss of the air tankers by adding as many other resources as are available.''

It will be the first time Black Hawks have been used on initial fire attacks in New Mexico, she said. Traditionally, National Guard helicopters have been used in a backup role to drop water on fires or for medical evacuations.

The state Forestry Division has purchased two ``bambi-buckets'' for the Black Hawks. The new water buckets have a control that allows for more accurate water drops.

Each can hold 250 to 400 gallons, depending on how far the helicopter has to travel, Prukop said. Longer trips mean less water hauled.

The Forestry Division is responsible for fighting fires on 42 million acres of land in New Mexico that's not owned by municipalities or federal agencies. The division has the authority to draw upon firefighting resources around the nation if the need arises.

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