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Fires hit close to home for 146th Airlift Wing

  • Published
  • By Maj. Kim Holman
  • 146AW
When hot, dry, gusty winds from the east, known as Santa Ana winds, carried the sparks and embers of the Camarillo Springs wildfire dangerously close to homes and neighborhoods late last week, the California National Guard members who responded alongside fire personnel had a unique opportunity: to protect their own homes and communities.

The 146th Airlift Wing, which is based here and flies C-130J Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems II, is called upon each year to fight fires across the United States. Last year the 146th and the Air Force's three other MAFFS units dropped more than 2 million gallons of fire retardant on wildfires in eight states.

This year, the fire season kicked off early, and right in the 146th's backyard, as the unit's airmen were called upon May 3 to fight the flames in Ventura County.

In addition to requesting that two C-130J aircraft take to the skies, Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California's adjutant general, authorized air tanker base operations to be staged out of Channel Islands Air National Guard Station here. This enabled shorter response times for the civilian and military aircraft working the fires, which were less than five miles from the base.

"Operationally, it's the same," Lt. Col. Bryan Allen, an 146th pilot, said shortly after dropping retardant on Newbury Park, near the home where he grew up.

"We took an oath to serve because we want to help save Californians' lives and property, and everyone deserves a quick reaction time," he continued. "But it just hits home flying over your neighborhood that this is your house, or your friend's house, or your family's house. When it comes home, well, the anxiety level raises a little bit."

The 146th Airlift Wing has responded to numerous state and federal firefighting missions in the past, but this is the first time the 146th's flightline has been used as a tanker base. Staging operations at Channel Islands provided a huge advantage for the firefighters, said Lt. Col. Brian Kelly, the wing's vice commander.

"Aircraft were able to have a 12- to 17-minute turnaround time on fires that were within just a couple miles," he said. "Previously, the nearest reload base would have been about a 30-minute flight away."

Kelly is a Camarillo native and C-130J pilot whose home was within a few miles of the Camarillo Springs fire.

"This was definitely a different kind of fire for me," said Master Sgt. Amy Zuniga of the 146th AW. While Zuniga was working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to set up tanker base operations at Channel Islands, her 23-month-old son and his baby sitter were fleeing Naval Air Station Point Mugu, which is next door to the 146th's base.

"The focus was not only on preparing our tanker base; we were all worried about protecting our families and our own homes," Zuniga said. "It was a little unnerving, but the baby sitter called and let me know that they were safe in Oxnard, far away from the fire."

The MAFFS II is capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant at a time. The system slides into the back of an aircraft, and retardant is released through a nozzle located on the rear left side of the plane. MAFFS equipment and aircraft are activated to supplement U.S. Forest Service and civilian air tankers during periods of high wildfire activity throughout the nation.

"California is no stranger to wildfires," said Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Our well-exercised and long-standing relationship with the California National Guard allows for rapid, effective deployment of these additional resources during times of elevated fire activity."