New York Air National Guard Drone Pilots Return from Assisting on California Fires

Second DEC Firefighting Crew Heading West to Aid States with Wildland Fires

New York (STL.News) Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today welcomed home a team of 10 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers, staff, and volunteers who have been helping battle and contain wildland fires raging in western states for the past two weeks.  These trained, expert firefighters helped battle high priority fires in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Governor Cuomo also welcomed home two members of the New York Air National Guard who provided mission support with remotely piloted aircraft to detect fire lines and aid in fire control measures while assisting California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California.

A second DEC crew will travel to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Denver, CO, on Sept. 12, to assist western states battling wildland fires.

“These brave New Yorkers traveled west without hesitation to help battle these historic wildfires that haves scorched thousands of acres of land, burned hundreds of thousands of homes, and forced massive evacuations in 13 states,” Governor Cuomo said.  “New Yorkers are tough and always ready to roll up their sleeves whether we’re supporting other states in the response to COVID-19 or helping fight wildfires.  I am proud to welcome the team back home and offer my support and well wishes to the new crew of wildland firefighters heading west.”

The returning crew of firefighters, which began their assignment on Aug. 25 and returned to the Capital Region today, include a DEC Forest Ranger crew boss and nine firefighters from the ranks of Forest Rangers and other DEC programs.

The New York crew joined federal, state, and local fire agencies battling the Aristocrat Fire in Nebraska and South Dakota, which has been contained.  The new crew of firefighters headed to the Rocky Mountains will receive their assignment when they arrive.  These wildland firefighters will be deployed for two weeks and dispatched to Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, or Kansas to assist with firefighting efforts in these states.  In addition, one DEC Forest Ranger deployed to California on Sept. 10 to assist in fighting the Valley Fire as a Planning Section Chief.

The returning crew of New York Forest Rangers, staff, and volunteers are:

Mike Thompson, Forest Ranger, Crew Boss, Hamilton County
James Canevari, DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife, Onondaga County
Joshua Choquette, DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife, Delaware County
Jon Cleveland, Forester/DEC Division of Lands and Forests, Steuben County
Jenna Curcio, Forest Ranger, Otsego County
Aaron Graves, Forester/DEC Division of Lands and Forests, St. Lawrence County
Joe Pries, Forest Ranger, Dutchess and Putnam Counties
Scott Sabo, Forest Ranger, Franklin County
Nate Shea, Forest Ranger, St. Lawrence County
Timothy Yeatts, DEC Division of Fish and Wildlife, St. Lawrence County
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “I applaud DEC’s team of wildland firefighting experts for their bravery and willingness to assist other states dealing with devastating wildfires.  It’s not easy to pick up, leave families, and travel across the country to fight wildfires during a pandemic, but our Forest Rangers, staff, and volunteers never hesitate to lend a helping hand and show the world that New Yorkers are tough, caring, and courageous.  I thank them for their service and wish the best of luck to the new crew headed west to help protect natural resources and communities in our sister states.”

The two members of the New York Air National Guard – Tech. Sgt. Andrew Pajak, an MQ-9 sensor operator assigned to the 107th Attack Wing in Niagara Falls, and 1st Lieutenant Nicole Clay, an MQ-9 aircraft pilot assigned to the 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse – operated MQ-9 scouting missions for landing zones during the helicopter rescues of 214 people over Labor Day weekend.

MQ-9s provide overhead video to fire managers in California by flying at high altitudes using sensors that can see through smoke.  The MQ-9s, which are not impacted by high winds and intense heat, provide the incident commander a clearer picture of the situation, keep pilots out of dangerous locations, and enable Guard members on the ground to make better response decisions.

Major General Ray Shields, Adjutant General of New York said, “We are always prepared to lend a helping hand and our expertise whenever we’re called upon to assist a state in need, and we’re proud of our personnel and what they accomplished in working with our counterparts in the California National Guard.”

In 1979, New York sent its first firefighting crew to assist western states with large wildfires.  On average, one or two crews have been sent as needed to assist with wildfires every year since.  In addition to helping contain wildfires and minimize damage, these crews gain valuable experience that can be utilized fighting wildfires and managing all-risk incidents in New York.

All personnel and travel expenses for the New York crews are either paid directly by the U.S. Forest Service or reimbursed to New York State based on a mutual aid agreement between states and federal land agencies.

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