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146th Airlift Wing Conducts Airtanker Firefighting Training

  • Published
  • By John Scheibe
  • 146AW
Media outlets from Ventura and Los Angeles flocked to the 146th April 15, 2015 to get a behind-the-scenes look at the seamless interagency training preparing for the impending fire season. Below is a story written by local Ventura County reporter John Scheibe.

California Air National Guard shows off firefighting capabilities

POINT MUGU, Calif. - A California Air National Guard aircraft slowly approached an empty runway Wednesday, dropping a load of water as a throng of reporters and photographers looked on nearby.

"You can't imagine what satisfaction I get to fight a fire in my own backyard," Col. David Bakos, a Thousand Oaks native and wing commander with the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station near Point Mugu, told a group during a briefing before the water drop.

The annual demonstration is meant to display the Air National Guard's firefighting capabilities.

It comes as California is in the fourth year of what is turning out to be one of its most severe droughts in modern times. Among many other things, the drought could mean another brutal fire season for the state, especially Southern California.

Bakos, who also works as a commercial airline pilot, remembers being called out on a wildfire north of Thousand Oaks some time ago. He recalled flying north toward the fire, his aircraft loaded with retardant, and looking out of the cockpit down to his Thousand Oaks home.

"This is something that members of the active-duty military don't get to experience," Bakos said as he recalled a deep satisfaction knowing he was not only helping to defend his own home from fire but those of his neighbors and people he's never met.

The demonstration came during a weeklong, annual training session for air crews and firefighters, including some from the U.S. Forest Service.

Kim Christensen, a Forest Service employee and deputy assistant director of operations for fire and aviation administration in Boise, Idaho, praised her agency's working relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense, including the Air National Guard. The relationship goes back to the early 1970s, when defense officials agreed to help the Forest Service and other agencies fight wildfires by using military aircraft to drop retardant.

Congress established the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) after the 1970 Laguna Fire that devastated more than 175,000 acres in eastern San Diego County. The fire destroyed 382 homes and killed eight people.

Since then, the Air National Guard has flown more than 7,000 fire missions, dropping some 162 million pounds of retardant on wildfires.

In addition to the Channel Islands station, MAFFS operates out of the Wyoming Air National Guard base in Cheyenne, a North Carolina Air National Guard base in Charlotte and at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

The Forest Service reimburses the Air National Guard for all costs associated with MAFFS.

In all, eight C-130s are assigned to MAFFS duty across the United States. A C-130 equipped with a firefighting system can drop up to 3,000 gallons of retardant or water on wildfires.

More often than not, the aircraft drop the bright orange fire retardant, said Maj. Kimberly Holman, a spokeswoman for the California Air National Guard. The retardant has several advantages over water, including allowing officials to tell hours, days and even weeks later where the substance actually landed, she said.

Fire retardant is now made with fertilizer, helping damaged trees regenerate more quickly after a fire, Forest Service officials say.

The aircraft are usually flown lower than 200 feet when dropping retardant, often through large columns of smoke above hilly terrain, making such drops dangerous.

This week's training at the Channel Islands base includes bringing some 100 firefighting personnel together for six days of classroom sessions and flight exercises. Aircraft are also dropping water in the Angeles National Forest and in Kern County as part of the training.

"The airmen of this wing are passionate about this mission, protecting and defending our local communities, the great state of California and the United States as a whole," Bakos said. The Guard has even fought fires overseas, including Italy and Indonesia, he said.