146th Airlift Wing Helps Fight Fires in Texas
By Anthony Plascencia , Ventura County Starr
/ Published May 13, 2011
Ventura, Calif.- -- Nearly a dozen members of the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing boarded a C-130J Hercules aircraft last week on a mission to replace their fellow Guardsmen fighting massive wildfires that have plagued Texas.
The air unit, stationed near Point Mugu, is now in its fourth rotation sending teams of Guardsmen to assist the U.S. Forest Service in firefighting efforts.
"This is the first time we've been called out of California to do something of this scale," said Tech. Sgt. Marc Garnsey, one of the load masters who recently returned from a week-long stint at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene. "This is cool in that it breaks the monotony of training."
Since last month, Air National Guard units from four states have dropped more than 4 million pounds of fire retardant on some of the state's largest fires, including the Oasis, Deaton Cole and Rock House blazes. Fires have burned more than 2 million acres across the state since November.
The Hercules aircraft is loaded with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems II, designed to drop fire retardant.
According to Lt. Col. Bryan Allen, MAFFS is the most advanced aerial firefighting system in the world. The system can spray a 60-foot-wide coat of retardant across a quarter mile using compressed air.
"Commercial air tankers like the P3 and P2 use gravity feeds to distribute retardant," Allen said. "The water tends to want to stay together, so it can potentially be destructive."
Allen said by using pressurized air, the Air National Guard can drop a consistent layer of retardant on an affected area without the risk of damaging structures and other things on the ground.
Many of the burning areas in Texas are in remote locations. But with the new MAFFS, Air Guard units have the flexibility to respond quickly. MAFFS II is equipped with onboard air compressors that can reload during the return flight. The improvement means planes only need to be on the ground long enough to refill their fire retardant.
"In the past, we needed to have compressors on the ground," Allen said. "Most air bases don't have air compression equipment, so we had to bring our own whenever we went out on a mission."
On the more intense days, each of the half-dozen MAFFS planes have been known to deliver up to 10 drops before sunset.
On the ground, maintenance crews work to keep up with the planes returning for fuel and retardant. Their big challenges come from the weather.
"We had rain the first week, then hail and thunderstorms," Senior Master Sgt. Bob Barry said. "Then it was nice, in the 80s. Literally the only thing we've been missing out here is snow."
The weather isn't always the same where the planes are refueling and where the fires are burning, which can mean long waits between flights.
Garnsey said crews can wait hours or even days before being called on, depending on weather conditions.
Sometimes, "we'll sit around for four or five hours, maybe doing nothing till 2 or 3 in the afternoon. But when you get the call, it can get really busy."
Pilots control when and where the retardant drops, but much of MAFFS is run separately from the cockpit, leaving pilots free to worry about visibility and safety.
"You're always concerned with air traffic," said Lt. Col. Greg Ervin. "And on the ground, there may be ground crews and other things. You want to try to avoid them."
The 146th Airlift Wing was originally scheduled to spend part of this month training in Boise, Idaho. That annual training is the only scheduled place where new Guardsmen can earn a certification for the state-of-the-art firefighting equipment.
"Only 60 or 70 percent of our load masters are MAFFS-qualified," Garnsey said. "You can get requalified while fighting a real fire, but you have to get your initial qualification at the training."
With the high number of flights and year-round fire season back home in California, Lt. Col. Connie Poulsen doesn't foresee any staffing problems for the unit while junior members wait to get trained.
"We have 12 fully qualified MAFFS crews in the unit," said Poulsen. "We won't have any trouble responding to future fires."