Two Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System-equipped C-130s from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd Airlift Wing, aircrews and maintainers returned Aug. 30 after providing support to U.S. Forest Service aerial firefighting operations in the Western U.S.
The 302nd AW C-130s and approximately 30 Air Force Reservists were part of a duty rotation including three Air National Guard wings that fly the MAFFS mission.
During August the reserve C-130s made 124 drops using more than 335,000 gallons of retardant on fires in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and California. This included more than 50 drops on both the Beaver Creek fire, a large fire in eastern Idaho and the Rim fire, California’s fourth largest fire in that state’s history that also threatened Yosemite National Park. As of the end of August, the Rim fire was the largest wildland fire currently burning in the U.S.
The 302nd began participating in the latest round of wildfires on Aug. 7 when a MAFFS-equipped C-130, aircrew and approximately 10 support personnel joined the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard in MAFFS operations at Boise, Idaho Airport, making retardant drops on more than a dozen fires in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. Two MAFFS C-130s from the California Air National Guard’s 146th AW were also activated at their home base in Channel Islands, Calif. An additional 302nd AW C-130 was called up on Aug. 23, bringing to five the number of MAFFS C-130s used in the wildland fires.
The U.S. Forest Service redirected firefighting operations to McClellan Airfield, Calif., on Aug. 27, moving all five MAFFS firefighting resources closer to the Rim and Fish fires. The Rim fire burned more than 184,000 acres and threatened land and structures in Yosemite National Park. At that same time, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group increased the national fire preparedness level to its highest point, PL-5. This was the fifth time in the last 10 years that PL-5 had been reached.
According to Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, 302nd AW chief of aerial firefighting, August was a somewhat typical month for the fire season.
As the month progressed, all MAFFS assets were activated to support the Rim fire. “With a fire that grows so fast in such a short time, it sometimes seems impossible to stop,” Thompson said. “But once we began operations out of McClellan with full force committed to the Rim fire, it was like a construction project. Load after load of retardant was dropped to reinforce bulldozer lines and support the ground crews. We all were getting in as many drops as daylight allowed. After a few days of this the containment levels finally started going up. It’s hard to see much difference made by one drop, but by the end of five days you could definitely see progress.”
Reserve C-130s performed more than 50 drops on the Rim fire.
“Firefighting is a very fluid and dynamic endeavor,” Thompson said. “The locations and intensities of fires change rapidly and MAFFS is required to react accordingly. Several times MAFFS systems had to be moved to other aircraft to accommodate new maintenance requirements. This requires a huge amount of work by maintenance and aerial port and they never batted an eye. They got the systems moved; accommodated short notice location changes, and kept the mission going.”
To meet the needs of MAFFS operations, the aircraft maintainers worked a split shift operation. Basic post flight and pre-flights were worked nightly to ensure any aircraft discrepancies noted during that day’s mission were corrected allowing the aircraft to be ready for the next day’s missions. “The aircraft flew great every day, flying 16 of the 18 days deployed,” said Chief MSgt. Mike Sanchez, 302nd Maintenance Operations Flight superintendent.
“We know the fire season is far from over so although the MAFFS systems have been downloaded so the aircraft can be used for their normal mission, we will continue to be ready if called. The systems are fully functional and all other operations and support equipment is ready to go, added Thompson.
This year the 302nd AW fire support season began June 11 when the U.S. Forest Service requested assistance for the Black Forest fire in northern Colorado Springs. Through Sept. 4, MAFFS-equipped C-130s flew 572 missions, made 535 drops using 1,375,981 gallons of retardant on fires in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and California.
“MAFFS is a very gratifying mission. The days can be long, and high stress knowing people’s homes and lives may be in jeopardy. But compared to other endeavors, the impact [of MAFFS’ containment] can be seen in a relatively short period of time,” said Lt. Col. Jason Terry, 52nd Airlift Squadron commander.
As of Sept. 4 the National Interagency fire center reported 35,430 wildland fires had burned nearly 3.9 million acres in the U.S., roughly half of the 2004 to 2013 average of 6.1 million acres burned.