STEAD — Nigel Harrison and Steve Nielsen have seen combat, so when it comes to the most dangerous duty they’ve seen — being deployed to Afghanistan or fighting wildfires in California and Nevada they didn’t hesitate to say this: Fighting wildfires here at home.
Harrison and Nielsen, who both live in Carson City, participated in an exercise for the media on Friday in which the Nevada Army National Guard demonstrated its firefighting capabilities. Harrison piloted the Blackhawk helicopter which transported the media to watch a Chinook helicopter, being piloted by Nielsen, while it was being used to simulate how the helicopters are used to fight fires.
The Nevada Army National Guard at its aviation base in Stead has six Chinook helicopters and six Blackhawk helicopters that can be used for firefighting.
But the local guard unit is taken to the limit when it comes to its duties which is demonstrated by the fact three of the Blackhawk helicopters will be deployed to Afghanistan this summer, leaving just three Blackhawk helicopters back here available for firefighting.
“Fighting fires are really more dangerous than being in Afghanistan in combat,” said Harrison, who flew a medivac helicopter in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014.
He said while there’s only really one enemy in Afghanistan “you have multiple enemies” in fighting fires, including the fire and smoke. “Afghanistan, you just have people shooting at you, that’s easy to avoid.”
Harrison has been in the military for 17 years, joining active duty service when he enlisted in the Navy. He is now a captain in the Nevada Army National Guard and also teaches construction management at Western Nevada College. He has three years experience fighting fires.
“It’s more dangerous than combat,” said Nielsen, agreeing with Harrison about the dangers of firefighting. Nielsen also saw combat in Afghanistan.
A 1994 Carson High graduate, Nielsen enlisted for active duty in the Army right after graduation and has been in the military for the past 25 years. He’s now also an instructor teaching other prospective helicopter pilots in the Nevada Army National Guard.
Nielsen has been fighting fires since 2006 and saw extensive time fighting the fires in California last year. “I think we were there about a month,” he said.
Nielsen and Harrison along with their crews demonstrated how fast the helicopters can respond to a fire on Friday. They flew their helicopters from the guard facility in Stead to the Stampede Reservoir, making the more than 20-mile trip in a matter of minutes. Two years ago, the Nevada Army National Guard unit was able to respond to the Washoe fire within a half hour.
The Chinook helicopter carries a bucket that can hold 2,000 gallons of water while the Blackhawk carries a bucket that can hold 660 gallons of water.
Friday, Nielsen hovered over the water while another crew member dropped the bucket to retrieve the water from the reservoir. The crew did this several times with Nielsen demonstrating his ability to get close — but not too close — when spraying an area with water.
“We don’t want to go too low,” Nielsen said. “Then the blades can fan the flames.”
Nielsen said he tries to stay about 250 feet above the ground at 50 knots — 57.5 mph. “That gives us a nice spread for the fire,” he said.