USA– For Air National Guard pilots, firefighting missions are among the most challenging, dangerous and sought-after assignments around.
And this year, those who make the cut could be busier than ever.
The U.S. Forest Service last year lost about 40 percent of the commercial air tankers it deployed to fight fires, and this year’s unusually dry winter could lead to an extended wildfire season, officials said.
Those factors gave special significance to the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System training session held this week at the Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing station in Port Hueneme. The MAFFS features a removable firefighting unit capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant from a military C-130 cargo plane.
“It’s all about readiness,” said Jim Turner of the U.S. Forest Service. “This year it’s more important than ever.”
Nearly 100 personnel from the Air National Guard and Forest Service gathered at the Port Hueneme base for the weeklong training session, which began Monday. Officials were aiming for 12 practice water drops a day to qualify personnel, including 25 pilots, in the use of MAFFS. Some water drops were done in the Angeles National Forest and Kern County.
Flying a MAFFS plane is a sought-after assignment that is both difficult and challenging, said Maj. Kimberly Holman, a spokeswoman for the Air National Guard.
To drop their water or fire retardant accurately, the pilots fly C-130s about 150 feet above ground and a quarter-mile behind lead planes while also contending with issues that can include wind, uneven terrain and limited visibility, officials said.
“Doing an air tanker drop is like being an artist,” said Battalion Chief Dan Reese of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Air National Guard has eight MAFFS units, with two assigned to each of four Airlift Wings, including the 146th.
The Guard’s firefighting systems are used as “surge capacity,” meaning they come into play when local, state and federal air resources are exhausted, officials said.
If the 2012 fire season turns out to be a busy one, the MAFFS cargo-plane units could be in especially high demand due to decreases in the commercial air tanker fleet used by the U.S. Forest Service. The forest service had contracts with about 30 tankers a decade ago, but the number gradually decreased as planes were retired due to safety concerns including age and fatigue, officials said.
At the beginning of 2011, the forest service had 19 air tankers under contract, but an additional eight were retired that year, said Scott Fisher, the Forest Service’s national training officer for MAFFS.
“We will essentially see MAFFS being used on a more frequent basis as a result,” he said.
In addition to the Forest Service’s 11 tankers, the state has 23, each capable of carrying 1,200 gallons of water or fire retardant, Reese said. Those resources can be used up quickly when several large wildfires are burning around the nation at the same time.
The MAFFS cargo-plane units are used on firefighting missions an average of twice a year, but they were deployed eight times in 2011 as wildfires blazed in areas including Texas and New Mexico, officials said.
The 146th Airlift Wing was involved in four of the 2011 deployments. It fought fires in Kern County, Texas and New Mexico, Holman said.
It’s hard to predict demand for the MAFFS units because while authorities can forecast fire-prone weather, they can’t foresee factors such as lightning strikes or arson, officials said.
“We are absolutely ready to meet whatever needs the Forest Service has,” Holman said.