MAFFS Airmen Get Ready to Roll When Wildfire Season Heats Up

By MR. MATT LIPTAK, Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service reports that extended fire seasons, larger fires, and more area burned each year has led to more extreme fires. This unfortunate combination has led to a stronger firefighting response, including the use of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) in C-130s to augment fire suppression efforts.

MAFFS is a critical asset to firefighters because it is able to disperse up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in just 10 seconds or less over a quarter-mile front. The remarkable system fits into the back of a C-130. Fire retardant is released through a nozzle on the rear left side of the aircraft.

The 302d Airlift Wing, Peterson AFB, CO, is the single Air Force Reserve unit assigned to the MAFFS mission. The three Air National Guard wings tasked to carry out MAFFS missions are the 146th Airlift Wing from Channel Islands, California, 152d Airlift Wing from Reno, Nevada, and the 153d Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

These units are expected to keep busy over the coming fire seasons. The trend of larger and more frequent fires is expected to continue for decades. USA Today reported the National Climate Assessment expects the area burned by wildfires will double nationwide as global warming leads to even longer wildfire seasons and more frequent droughts until at least 2044.

In a U.S. Senate hearing this past June, Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Interior Department, told Congress that this year’s fire season could be as bad as last year’s, which included the Camp Fire, the most expensive and deadliest fire in California’s history. Last season also included the Mendocino Complex Fire, which charred more than 700 square miles in California.

“It’s hard to imagine a repeat of this experience, but this is the potential reality that we face again this year,” Rupert said. “So it’s difficult for me to sit here this morning and say that a challenging year is ahead of us, because the wildfires that we’re now experiencing are consistently more destructive than they’ve ever been,” Rupert warned.

In such trying times the benefit of the MAFFS system and the Airmen who use it is easy to see. The system is built by the United Aeronautical and Blue Aerospace companies. On the MAFFS website, they herald the system as the only C-130 roll-on/roll-off retardant delivery system. It is designed in close coordination with U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Air Force, and Lockheed Martin. The pressurized tank allows untethered operations and it installs/uninstalls in less than an hour. According to the website, the trailer and necessary ground support equipment are included for storage and installation.

Although the technology sounds straightforward and streamlined, that is not always the case for the actual missions. Like much of the work Airmen do, risk is part of the job. Courage is not optional. In July of 2012, four Airmen died while on a MAFFS mission in South Dakota when a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm caused them to crash. Two Airmen survived, but Lt Col Paul K. Mikeal, Maj Joseph McCormick, Maj Ryan S. David, and SMSgt Robert S. Cannon lost their lives in the crash.

This past June four buildings at the North Carolina Air National Guard Base at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport were dedicated to the men. As reported by North Carolina Air National Guard Public Affairs, Maj Joel Kingdon, 156th Airlift Squadron, commemorated the Airmen’s sacrifice by saying “These Airmen selflessly gave their lives executing our C-130 Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System mission while fighting the White Draw Fire in South Dakota. Today we say thank you to the Families for their sacrifice, and we forever memorialize our fallen heroes by dedicating these buildings to serve as a lasting tribute of their service to our country.”

The investigation that followed the crash indicated that communication between the lead plane and the C-130 that crashed played a role in the tragedy. As with all Air Force missions, training plays a key role in keeping future accidents from occurring. Safety is a critical element to successfully carrying out any MAFFS mission.

As such, Airmen and their civilian counterparts are always training and certifying for MAFFS missions. In May of this year, they were already gearing up for the new fire season by going through training. Nearly three hundred people from the Air National Guard, U.S. Forest Service, and other firefighting departments undertook a week’s worth of aerial wildland firefighting training and certification directed by the Air Force Reserve’s 302d Airlift Wing.

Col James DeVere, 302d Airlift Wing Commander, said that training is vital to the mission. ”We are able to battle wildfires as one seamless interagency team working with the U.S. Forest Service because of the training we do together,” he said.

Knowing how to properly use the MAFFS is an integral part of that mission. “Wildland fire management agencies have relied on MAFFS for more than 40 years to provide a surge capacity when commercial air tankers are fully committed or not readily available, as they frequently are during periods of high wildfire activity,” said Kim Christensen, Deputy Assistant Director for Operations for the U.S. Forest Service. “Training that includes all of the military and civilian personnel who work together when MAFFS are mobilized is critical to ensure that military aircraft fly safely and effectively and that they can be seamlessly integrated into wildfire suppression operations.”

With the growing threat of wildfires from a changing climate, Airmen are sure to be busy with their C-130s and MAFFS well into the future. When their country calls, Airmen answer. In executing a successful mission, safety must be kept as a high priority. Proper training leads to effective safety standard operating procedures. By keeping Airmen safer, those threatened by wildfire can also be made safer until that final ember is extinguished.