By Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — A crew of Wyoming Air National Guard members departed Thursday for Colorado Springs, Colorado, on a fully loaded C-130 Hercules to help fight regional wildfires.
The four-engine turboprop aircraft, equipped with the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, will be stationed at Peterson Air Force Base for at least the next five days.
Cheyenne’s MAFFS unit – operated by the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing – is one of only four such equipment locations throughout the country. These aircraft are considered a “24-hour resource” and expected to arrive on scene within 24 hours of activation, often being pulled from regular military duties and fitted with the MAFFS equipment.
The U.S. Forest Service contracts with private companies to provide wildfire relief efforts. But during periods of high wildfire activity, there are often not enough resources to meet demand.
Cheyenne’s crew will join three other MAFFS-equipped C-130s – two from the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing, based at Peterson Air Force Base, and one from the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing – for this mission.
The other MAFFS location is the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard.
MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that 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.
In 2017, more than 820,000 gallons of retardant were dropped by the four airlift wings combined.
The crews will be deployed to fight any number of “active incidents” in the area. This could include Colorado’s Spring Creek Fire in Costilla and Huerfano counties, which has now engulfed more than 103,000 acres in flames. As of Wednesday, firefighters had contained 5 percent of the blaze. It is considered the third-largest wildfire in Colorado’s history.
MAFFS aircraft have been activated every year for the past eight years during wildfire season, sometimes several times a year.
“This unit is actually a Forest Service unit; the Forest Service owns this and works out the finances with our unit, so basically we get called to assist when civilians assets are busy,” said Wyoming Air National Guard Master Sgt. Chris Reese. “Every year, we meet annually with the Forest Service to have group training so everyone can get refreshed.”
Toshio Sameshima, a Wyoming Air National Guard pilot, said the 12-person Wyoming crew will include a flight engineer and navigator to guarantee safety and clearance on the heavy, low-flying aircraft.
“We are only flying 150 feet up a lot of times,” he said. “You are climbing out of valleys and there are mountains, so we have to be able to clear that terrain. The retardant is about nine pounds per gallon, so we are looking at 27,000 pounds of retardant on the airplane.”
Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service could not immediately give a cost estimate on each local C-130 MAFFS mission, but the agency spent roughly $2.4 billion battling wildfires in 2017, according to its website.
“It has a lot to do with drought conditions,” Sameshima said. “It is hard to say what each season will bring.”