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Military aircraft provide surge capability for wildfire response

by Patti Bielling
U.S. Army North Public Affairs

7/11/2008 - SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AFPN) -- A continuing heat wave and an ongoing need for aircraft to support ground firefighters will likely keep Department of Defense aircraft very busy for the foreseeable future in support of the national wildland firefighting effort, the Army colonel in charge of coordinating that support said July 9.

Col. Gary Stanley, a U.S. Army North defense coordinating officer, has been deployed since late June to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to coordinate federal requests for cargo planes and helicopters to fight wildfires raging in California.

Eight Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems, known as "MAFFS," are dropping retardant on fires in California. The MAFFS are U.S. Forest Service-owned units that slide into the back of military cargo planes and turn them into air tankers that drop fire retardant.

"The MAFFS are designed to supplement the commercial air tanker fleet during periods of high utilization," Colonel Stanley said. "Federal activation occurs when additional assets are needed to support initial or extended attack or for large fire support."

In this case, the MAFFS aircraft are based at McClellan Airfield, Calif., and have flown more than 300 sorties, dropping nearly 850,000 gallons of retardant from June 20 through July 9.

Air tankers are part of a coordinated air-ground effort. Retardant is used to lower flames and fire intensity in support of ground firefighters. Without ground support, there is a good chance that fires will burn through or around the retardant.

Basing the aircraft at McClellan Airfield in Sacramento kept the planes far enough away from the fires in the north so that they did not get smoked in, said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jerry Champlin, a director of operations with the 302nd Air Expeditionary Group.

A reload base was later established farther south at Channel Island Air National Guard Station to increase mission efficiency, Colonel Champlin said.

"The reload facility allowed us to reduce round-trip time and to fly more sorties each day," he said. "The Channel Island base was ideal because we trained there -- the pit locations, set-up and procedures were well established -- and it's far from Southern California's major air traffic routes."

In addition to the MAFFS, six Marine Corps heavy helicopters and two Navy medium helicopters equipped with buckets are dropping water on fires in Southern California.

As with MAFFS aircraft, military helicopters are activated only after commercial assets have been fully committed. As of July 7, the helicopters have made more than 500 drops flying from their base at Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif.

This is the first time in more than 10 years that active-duty aircraft have been used as an integrated federal resource managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Stanley said. Until this time, active-duty helicopters were limited to providing immediate response and support on mutual-aid agreements with local communities, he said.

"We were pleased to add the helicopters to the list of capabilities available to the federal wildland firefighting community," he said. "Under this activation, the active-duty helicopters have been deployed and employed throughout California, which allows this limited resource to be used against the highest-priority fires regardless of where they are."

The federal activation of helicopters was only possible because of the combined efforts of the Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the Department of Defense following the 2007 wildfires in California, Colonel Stanley said.

"We worked before the start of the 2008 Western wildfire season to get the aircraft and crews certified to California and federal standards," he said. "As a result, these helicopters may be employed as a federal asset on a federal fire as well as an asset on a state fire."

Colonel Stanley said he expects that both military air tankers and helicopters will be flying these missions for the foreseeable future.

"We've got a lot of experience employing the MAFFS air tankers," he said. "Now we're working to ensure we have the processes in place to move the parts and supplies needed to maintain the helicopters for sustained operations."

Ten U.S. Army North defense coordinating officers are stationed throughout the United States to coordinate defense support of civil authorities for U.S. Northern Command, the unified command responsible for homeland defense and civil support in the continental United States.

The National Interagency Fire Center has representatives of eight different agencies and organizations who prioritize requirements and allocate resources for wildland firefighting operations.

"Multiple, simultaneous outbreaks of large wildfires are relatively common, and we've learned that a single agency trying to handle all the fires will quickly be overwhelmed," said Lyle Carlile, fire director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Fire Center. "Getting the job done works best when we coordinate operations and help each other out."

The aircraft are assigned to the 302nd Air Expeditionary Group. The MAFFS aircraft are from three Air National Guard units -- 145th Airlift Wing from Charlotte, N.C.; the 146th Airlift Wing from Channel Islands ANGS, Calif.; and the 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyo., -- and one Air Force Reserve unit -- the 302nd Airlift Wing from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The helicopters are from California-based Navy and Marine Corps units -- Medium Helicopter Training Squadron 164 and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465 based out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego; and the Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Support Squadron 85 based out of Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.

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