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Air Force fighting fires at home

by Tech. Sgt. Mike Spaits
Air Force Print News

7/29/2005 - SAN ANOTNIO  -- Guardsmen and reservists are used to international situations that call for them to put out fires. Now, they are doing it here at home -- literally.

More than 60 guardsmen and four specially equipped C-130 Hercules from North Carolina and Wyoming Air National Guard units are battling blazes in the western United States, saving private property and lives during a perilous wildfire season that is keeping firefighters working around the clock.

Aircrews from the 145th Airlift Wing and the 153rd Airlift Wing have flown more than 70 sorties this past week over Idaho, Oregon and Utah spraying a special fire retardant chemical on wildfires that have charred nearly 13,000 acres in those three states alone.

The Air Force was brought in under a memorandum of agreement with the National Interagency Fire Center. The center, located in Boise, Idaho, is the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting, comprising seven federal and state agencies that work together to coordinate and support wildland fire and disaster operations.

“Calling in (Defense Department) assets is usually the last resort,” said Ken Fredricks, the fire center’s public affairs officer. “We try to work with what we have until all other resources are tapped out.”

When the call arrives for help, standing by are one Air Force Reserve and three Guard wings trained and equipped to fly and fight forest fires. The equipment used on the C-130s is called a modular airborne fire fighting system, which is also the name of the program that coordinates their use.

“Four Air Force units are trained to fight wildfires from the air,” said Tim Grantham, U.S. Forest Service MAFFS liaison officer.

“When needed, we usually get four aircraft that support us for a 30-day period. But if the conditions (for wildfire) are still bad and we need them longer, we’ll ask the Air Force to support us until the situation gets better,” Mr. Grantham said.

The two other units also trained to support the fire center in aerial firefighting are the California Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing and the Air Force Reserves’ 302nd Airlift Wing from Colorado.

The aircrews are mainly used in “initial attack” to support the wildland firefighters on the ground. The chemical they drop, a slurry substance, is used to cool underbrush, forest grasses and dead limbs before the fires reach those areas. It also helps keep wildfires from spreading outside of fire lines that ground crews have already established.

“The retardant doesn’t necessarily put out the fires, but it does buy time for those on the ground who do put them out,” Mr. Fredricks said.

According to the Airmen who fly this battle, there is a correlation between fighting fires and fighting wars.

“It’s very similar to combat flying,” said Lt. Col. Mike Exstrom with the Wyoming Guard, and mission commander for this operation.

“Outside of combat, this is some of the toughest flying we have to encounter,” he said. “It’s mostly low-level. The aircraft is very heavy with the fire slurry so you’re not carrying a lot of fuel, and you’re flying in limited visibility due to smoke.

“Plus, there is the motivation that firefighters on the ground are depending on you to put a good drop on the fire. It’s very challenging.”

Colonel Extrom has been flying fire suppression missions since 1980 and has been involved in some life-and-death situations.

“We once got a call from the firefighters on the ground and the situation was pretty dire. They needed us to put the retardant directly on top of them,” Colonel Exstrom said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help out and know you’ve made a difference.”

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