‘Worse than combat:’ Helicopters rescue hundreds from California wildfire

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – U.S. military helicopters on Tuesday plucked dozens more campers, hikers and locals from the path of a raging California wildfire, with one pilot describing conditions as more dangerous than combat.

California Army National Guard Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters were flying into dense smoke, sometimes landing within 50 feet of flames while an extreme wildfire burned through a dead forest in Central California.

Pilots and crews were packing aircraft with burn victims and evacuees, rescuing about 100 people on Tuesday, said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Shiroma.

Crews have airlifted around 360 people and 16 dogs since the Creek Fire, the cause of which is under investigation, in mountains 35 miles northeast of Fresno on Saturday.

Kipp Goding landed multiple times at a campsite where people gathered on a lake dock as everything around them burned, filling his UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to capacity.

“Every piece of vegetation you could see as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” Goding, an Army National Guard pilot, said on a video call.

He told two people on his last landing that it was their final chance to go, but they chose to stay with their motor homes.

Two helicopter pilots have died since mid-August fighting wildfires in California and Oregon and Goding said the missions were worse than getting shot at in combat.

“The added stress and workload of going in and out of that fire is definitely by far the toughest flying I’ve ever done,” said Goding, who has flown 25 years for the Army.

A decade-long drought allowed beetles to kill around 90 percent of trees in the Sierra National Forest area. Rising average temperatures, combined with recent heat waves, parched ground vegetation, creating optimal fire conditions.

Pilots are flying at night using night vision goggles to see through dense smoke that during the daytime can make missions impossible.

“Those night vision goggles allowed us to keep on going one ridge further,” Goding said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

U.S. plans to sell Black Hawk helicopters to Thailand

American Black Hawk helicopters are parked in a row during a dress rehearsal of the arrival ceremony which will be held to welcome U.S. President Donald Trump upon his arrival, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

BANGKOK (Reuters) – The United States plans to sell four Black Hawk helicopters to Thailand after initially suspending their sale following a 2014 military coup.

“The United States government has approved our purchase order for the four helicopters,” army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart told reporters on Thursday, adding that the army already had 12 Black Hawk helicopters.

“The matter will now be forwarded to Congress for approval,” he said.

The U.S. embassy in Bangkok confirmed the plan to sell the four helicopters, adding that Thailand and the United States had a “long-standing security relationship”.

Thailand’s military, which has a long history of intervention in politics, ousted a democratically elected government in May 2014 saying it had to step in to end a period of political turmoil.

Several Western countries including the United States criticized the takeover.

In response, the United States downgraded military and diplomatic ties with Thailand, its oldest ally in Asia, suspending arms sales and scaling back military exercises and training.

Thailand, in turn, increasingly looked to other countries, in particular China, for its defense purchases. In April it approved a plan to purchase Chinese submarines worth $393 million.

That same month, Thailand’s cabinet approved the purchase of 10 Chinese tanks worth $58 million to replace an old U.S. model.

But relations between the United States and Thailand appear to have improved under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump last month spoke with the junta chief, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, by telephone and invited him to visit the White House.

Following the call, Prayuth said ties with the United States were “closer than ever”.

A U.S. embassy spokeswoman, Melissa Sweeney, told Reuters by email that over the past decade the United States had sold Thailand military equipment worth more than $960 million, including Black Hawk helicopters, air-to-air missile systems and multiple naval missile and torpedo systems.

Since the coup, the approximate value of U.S. foreign military sales to Thailand was $380 million, she said.

“Equipping has always been and remains integral to that relationship,” she said.

Army chief Chalermchai did not say how much the Black Hawk helicopters would cost but that the military’s 2017 to 2019 budget would cover the cost.

The junta has tentatively set a general election for 2018.

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)