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MAFFS reservists reflect on season’s surge capability, mission challenges

Two MAFFS-equipped C-130 aircraft from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd Airlift Wing load up with retardant at McClellan Air Field Calif., Aug. 3, 2015. The aircraft began flying suppression missions on California fires within an hour of their initial arrival at the air field. The Colorado-based wing’s aircraft, crews and support personnel provided fire suppression support in California for one month. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield)

Two MAFFS-equipped C-130 aircraft from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd Airlift Wing load up with retardant at McClellan Air Field Calif., Aug. 3, 2015. The aircraft began flying suppression missions on California fires within an hour of their initial arrival at the air field. The Colorado-based wing’s aircraft, crews and support personnel provided fire suppression support in California for one month. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In early October the National Interagency Fire Center lowered the National Wildfire Preparedness level to one, its lowest level of five indicating national large fire activity had reduced to minimal levels. With this, and with what appears to be the end of hot, dry conditions in the western U.S., the 2015 aerial fire fighting season may be drawing to a close for the Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing Modular Airborne Fire Fighting equipped C-130s and aircrews.

This summer, when the National Wildfire Preparedness level was raised to its highest level of five, indicating geographic areas were experiencing major incidents having the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources, two MAFFS-equipped C-130s, and approximately 28 aircrew and aircraft maintainers from the 302nd AW were activated and deployed in response to the U.S. Forest Service's request for assistance which was received by the Peterson-based airlift wing on Aug. 2, 2015. Through this activation, the 302nd AW resources became part of the MAFFS Air Expeditionary Group and were tasked to support suppression efforts for fires burning out of control in California.

"We are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we continue to have adequate airtanker capability as we experience very challenging wildfire conditions in California, and elsewhere in the West," said Aitor Bidaburu, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group in NIFC's Aug. 2, 2015 news release announcing two 302nd AW C-130s and aircrews had been mobilized.  Bidaburu further stated, "Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability is critical to provide support to the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to protect lives, property and valuable natural and cultural resources from wildfires."  

Immediately after receiving mobilization notification and the official request for assistance from the U.S. Forest Service, aircraft maintainers and aerial porters from the Colorado Springs, Colo. reserve wing dedicated their August Unit Training Assembly efforts to necessary preparations to include pre-flighting aircraft, preparing the cargo compartments for the onload of the three-thousand gallon capacity MAFFS systems as well as the precision on-load and installation of the MAFFS system which occupies the majority of the cargo area of the C-130H3 aircraft. Behind the scenes, leaders from the wing's maintenance and operations groups were finalizing equipment and personnel requirements for the next-day's departure to California.

The 302nd AW aircraft departed Peterson Air Force Base the morning of Aug.  3 and began suppression missions on fires upon their arrival at McClellan Air Field, California near Sacramento that afternoon.

"The wing's response and preparations for the initial MAFFS deployment were outstanding, said Lt. Col. Greg Berry, commander of the wing's 731st Airlift Squadron.  "Having the ability to fly MAFFS missions within an hour of our arrival to McClellan Air Field made an important difference as we were immediately dispatched to help containment efforts on a fire threatening structures," he added.

At the start of this year's MAFFS activation, the 302nd AW aircraft and crews joined two C-130s and crews from the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard who were flying MAFFS missions under the state of California activation.

The 302nd AW provided MAFFS support in California from Aug. 3 through Sept. 2. The overall MAFFS activation of C-130s and crews continued through Sept. 12.

At the peak of the DOD MAFFS mobilization for 2015, six DOD MAFFS-equipped C-130s were federally activated by NIFC.  Aircraft and aircrews from all four MAFFS special mission wings rotated support efforts throughout the activation period. 

The DOD MAFFS-equipped C-130s are operated by four military airlift wings: The 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard; 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard; and the 302nd Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve Command.

Together in 2015, the federally activated MAFFS C-130s performed 338 drops using 842,979 gallons of retardant on more than a dozen fires in California.

Editor's Notes:  MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, that when loaded onto C-130 aircraft, can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

The DOD, through U.S. Northern Command at Peterson AFB, provides unique military support to firefighting efforts when requested by the National Interagency Fire Center and approved by the Secretary of Defense.  These diverse mission assets are prepared to respond quickly and effectively to protect lives, property, critical infrastructure and natural resources, and can include, but are not limited to, MAFFS, military helicopters and ground forces capable of supporting the firefighting efforts.

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