The ground shakes and you feel the vibration of four propeller engines approaching.
The rumble becomes a deafening roar as the California National Guard C-130 aircraft, only 150 feet above the ground, appears just above the treetops and drops 3,000 gallons of retardant in less than five seconds; thick red liquid coating the pine needles and forest floor below, creating a much-needed line of containment for firefighters on the ground.
Often, these lines are directly adjacent to a wall of flames.
Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, known as MAFFS, are a roll-on unit placed on the back of a C-130 cargo aircraft.
“We’ve utilized the MAFFS every year since 1973, with the exception of 13 fire seasons. We call upon the MAFFS for their support almost every year,” said Kim Christiansen, deputy director, fire operations, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service.
Many fire pilots say this MAFFS mission is more challenging than any combat missions they have flown.
High density-altitude and near maximum-weight capacity loads cause the aircraft to perform more sluggishly than normal, while low visibility from smoke, steep mountainous terrain, and dense air traffic push the aircrews to be at the top of their game.
Training is critical for this MAFFS mission. Cal Guard crews come together annually with CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service to train before fire season to hone their skills and standardize operating procedures.
The National Guard and the agencies they support have been working together since the early 1970s. Over the years, the synchronization has become seamless. Cal Guard provides a surge capacity for these partner agencies, supporting them when civilian assets are maximized.
“I think the key for all of us to be successful is our annual training that we do,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Brazell, MAFFS flight engineer with the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs. “Once a year we get together with all the CAL FIRE guys, all the different units come in and we all train together, we standardize everything, get to know each other’s ins and outs. Doing that annually helps us stay successful.”
There are four MAFFS-qualified C-130 units across the United States, and this year all four contributed their aircraft and personnel to California’s wildfire battle. These units are the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing in Ventura County, Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing in Reno, Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing in Cheyenne, and the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs.
“We know fire knows no boundaries,” said Christiansen. “We train together, we fight fire together, as the fires start on one agency and then spread to others. On a fire at any given time you’re going to see multiple agencies that are going to be working together, coming together to work in managing that fire.”
Since the initial activation July 23, MAFFS-equipped C-130s have dropped nearly 1.5 million gallons of retardant on fires across the state.
Wildfires moved to center stage in August, a year already fraught with COVID-19 and civil disturbance activations across the state. According to statistics maintained by CAL FIRE, five of the six largest wildfires in state history have burned since August.
The men and women of California’s 146th Airlift Wing were ready to respond when their partner agencies called, living up to the Cal Guard’s motto: Always Ready, Always There.