California and Nevada Air National Guard brought out their heavy assets June 15-19, 2020, to prepare for each state’s annual enemies — wildfires.
C-130 Hercules aircraft from both states filled the skies above Tahoe National Forest in Forest Hill, California, during U.S. Department of Agriculture Forestry Service-sponsored wildland firefighting training. With multiple state and federal organizations participating, Cal Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing and Nevada’s 152nd Airlift Wing deployed their Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems.
“California is one of our geographic areas where we activate the MAFFS quite frequently,” said Kim Christensen, deputy assistant director for operations for USDA Forest Service. “It’s really important that we train every year so that we can seamlessly and effectively integrate those aircraft into our firefighting operations. It helps ensure our mutual preparedness.”
During an actual fire, the MAFFS can discharge up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in less than 5 seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. For training purposes, aircraft released water over unpopulated forest. National Guard aircraft followed lead planes that communicate with ground forces, pinpointing drop locations.
Once a load is discharged, MAFFS can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.
“The fire training consists of each and every aircrew performing simulated fire runs along with a lead plane,” said Lt. Col. Todd Morgan, Cal Guard’s MAFFS mission commander. “It’s important for the aircrew each and every year to get this training for multiple reasons. One, it builds our relationships and camaraderie between us and our federal and state entities. This also ensures each and every aircrew can perform their tasks, and build their skills for the fire season.”
California, Nevada and Wyoming National Guards all have MAFFS capabilities. A Colorado Air Force reserve unit also houses the system, making these the only four entities in the United States to deploy MAFFS, Christensen said.
“We train annually,” she said. “We were just in Colorado last month. Now we’re here this week wrapping up our training with Nevada and California units.”
“As you know, fire has no boundaries,” she said. “We train together; we fight fires together. The fire starts on one agency and spreads to another. On a fire at any given time, you’re going to see multiple agencies working and coming together to manage that fire.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the Bureau of Land Management serve as lead participants in this training. Cal Guard and CAL FIRE are both prepared to unite in another year of battling blazes.
Though it’s still early in the fire season, there have been nearly 2,500 fires that have torched roughly 14,000 acres so far in 2020, according to CAL FIRE. In this same span in 2019, there were only 1,400 fires that burned 11,000 acres.
The MAFFS program has been in place since the 1970s and used in all but 13 fire seasons, according to Christensen.
“It really is a testament to the importance of interagency coordination and cooperation,” she said.
“A lot of people come together to make this happen. MAFFS is our surge capability,” said Caleb A. Berry, aviation management specialist, USDA Forest Service. “When our contract air ships, our retardant platforms are all fully committed and we need just a little more help, MAFFS is our go-to resource.”
The certification mission included classroom sessions and flying and ground operations for Air Force aircrews. Civilian lead pilots and support personnel from the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other state and federal firefighting agencies also trained.