USA — Members of military and civilian organizations closed Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System training operations April 30 after completing nearly 130 flying missions throughout the week over the Chattahoochee, Francis Marion, Pisgah, and Nantahala forests.
The recurrent training, which took several months of planning, is essential to assist in containing wildfires throughout the U.S. by dropping fire retardant slowing the fires progression, allowing the ground firefighters to attack the blazes.
“The training this week has been extremely successful. The military’s cooperation with the wildlife fire agencies has been wonderful, we’ve worked together so well,” said Lee Burwell, the Regional Ranger for North Carolina Division of Resources, responsible for interfacing with MAFFS commanders along with the wildlife fire agencies. “Some of the successes I would say we’ve had are just the relationships we’ve built. The mission has gone so smoothly and that can be attributed to all these agencies’ ability to work together.”
During a Department of Defense Bloggers Roundtable that morning, MAFFS Liaison Officer Lynn Ballard said that there used to be 44 civilian heavy air tankers, but over time that number has diminished to only 19. That’s why it is so important to have trained military pilots and crew members as a ready reserve.
“We have the resources available should we need them from the military to support any increased fire activity that would expend all of our commercial resources,” said Scott Fisher, Aviation Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, responsible for coordinating the training of air crews, support personnel and logistics. “We want to be able to make sure that when we have those peak fire seasons we have additional resources that we can call on to support our folks on the ground and suppressing fires in our nations communities.
“We have commercial resources that provide retardant and air tanker capability, but occasionally in the summer time, we’ll have multiple locations that have fires, and we have to spread our resources pretty thinly. In those situations we call upon the military to assist and to provide a surge capability in those locations.”
Multiple civilian organizations came together — the U.S. Forest Service, state of N.C. Forest Service, CalFire, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Aero Union, Lockheed Martin — and military organizations — the 145th Airlift Wing from Charlotte, N.C.; the 146th Airlift Wing from Channel Islands, Calif.; and the 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo. all Air National Guard units — and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing out of Colorado Springs, Colo.
“MAFFS crew members really are the select pilots and crewmembers,” said Ballard. “Pilots, loadmasters, flight engineers, navigators that are the top one percent, if you will, are brought into the program for the aerial firefighting.”
“We’ve tried to train a number of crews, recurrently,” said Fisher. “Most of the folks have been here many times before and have a good amount of experience, from our lead pilots to ground personnel. They have a great deal of experience firefighting.”
With pit crews standing by on the flightline, each C-130 lands and then taxis to its designated spot as the crews go to work in servicing the aircraft with power, fuel, air and water before they go back up for another MAFFS drop. Approximately 390,000 gallons of water has been dispersed in the four days of flying.
“Once we get in the pits, we try to load water and compressed air and get out of here in fifteen to twenty minutes,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Bailey, MAFFS training commander.
“Everything has to work perfectly,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Allen, deputy commander of the 146th Air Expeditionary Group, designated as the MAFFS command group by the North American Command. “We have a reaction time for the California National Guard of 13 hours from phone call to being able to disperse retardant. Now, everything has to work perfectly in that scenario… Normally it’s 24-48 hours before we can start.”
Just four years removed from the record-high 2,251,409 acres of forest burnt in 2006, meteorologists predict a devastating wildfire season in 2010. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, from May through July above normal significant fire potential is expected to develop across portions of Florida, southern and northern California, Oregon, and Alaska, with persisting above normal potential across the leeward side of the Hawaiian Islands.
“The outlook for this year’s fire season looks like we could have some devastating fires in the western United States, specifically in the northwest, they’ve had a really dry winter,” said Burwell. “That’s where the main focus is this summer.”
“It’s a very rewarding mission,” said Bailey. “I’ve been flying since ’92 and it’s very rewarding to do the drop and find out that people’s lives and properties have been saved.”