COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. --
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (May 10, 2019) -- Wildland firefighting includes a multi-faceted approach with many governmental agencies coming together as one—including the U.S. military.
Since 1974, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Defense have operated under a joint program using the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, more commonly known as MAFFS, which rolls into the back of a military C-130 aircraft.
Members of the military and the U.S. Forest Service met this week for their annual MAFFS training held this year at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
These types of trainings help the firefighters from both agencies get know each other and form strong relationships.
The four military units that participate in MAFFS include: the 152nd Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard; 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard and 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserves, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Other agencies involved in the training included: U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, North Carolina Forest Service, Texas Forest Service, CAL FIRE, and Alaska Forest Service.
When commercial aerial firefighting units are exhausted, MAFFS is activated as a surge capacity to support the total firefighting team and brings a surge capacity that can drop more than 3,000 gallons of retardant in six seconds. MAFFS is a backup to the commercial aerial firefighting units.
The planes are identified by a big orange number on the side of the military C-130 aircraft and on its tail.
David LaFon, of the North Carolina Forest Service, worked with the military units as the MAFFS Liaison Officer during this year’s training.
“When people see the military planes flying, they feel the best has come, these are the professionals,” LaFon said. “MAFFS will lay down a retardant line and will reinforce the fireline constructed by the handcrews. Sometimes MAFFS will lay a retardant line to support the handcrews to help them get to another location, or to protect property. The MAFFS units get called on to do a lot of the risky business.”
Wildland firefighting includes multiple moving parts and the four military units participating play a supplemental role for many other elements.
On the ground
Handcrews act as first responders to wildfires and include a team of 20 people. Their main responsibility is to construct “firelines.” Firelines look like a hiking trail and are constructed around wildfires to contain and control the fire. Handcrews use hand tools: the Pulaski, shovels, rakes and chainsaws. Their task is to remove the fuel and get down to the mineral soil.
Even after the fireline is constructed, it can sometimes jump the fireline when embers are shot in the air, or “spot across the line,” and can jump as far as a mile away. They can also go under the fireline by burning through the root system of a tree.
“In extreme drought conditions, when you get a dead tree and it is completely dried out, if that tree catches on fire on top, the fire can spread down into the roots, and spread underneath the line,” LaFon said.
Once constructed, aerial resources are called to reinforce the firelines and suppress the destruction. Occasionally when needed, the DOD provides C-130 cargo planes, and the forest service provides a pressurized fire-retardant tank system that sprays fire retardant from the rear side door of the plane.
Flying sorties for MAFFS requires airplane maintenance and loading of the fire-retardant tanks. “I get super excited about the job,” said Senior Airman Aubrie D. Nolan, crew chief assigned to the 152nd Maintenance Group, Nevada Air National Guard. “I am very passionate about the work. I love my job. I am from California, originally. I know the fires can be devastating to the people and being able to help them gives me a good feeling.”
“This mission is about saving lives, and homes, the instant satisfaction that comes with that; it’s humbling,” said 1st Lt. Timothy J. Buxton, 152nd Maintenance Group, Nevada Air National Guard. “Being with people who are going through those disasters, being able to be out there and generate the sorties, generate missions, and turn the aircraft quickly and safely, it’s gratifying to be a part of this mission.”
In the air
Once construction of the fireline is complete and the airplane is ready, it’s time to get over the blaze and reinforce firelines with retardant.
John Ponts, an air tactical pilot with CAL FIRE, works the Aerial Supervision Module, more commonly known as the lead plane or ASM. He oversees leads tankers into the fire fight in what is called the fire traffic area or the FTA and directs them on where to drop.
“Being the ASM you are the person that tactically puts together all the different pieces,” Ponts said.
It’s a tough job that requires coordination with the other planes, incident commander and air tactical group supervisor.
“The ASM plays an important role, and not everyone is cut out to do that, but that is what I really wanted to be a part of,” Ponts said. “One thing that attracted me to it was that you are a part of the overall objective, as opposed to a tanker that comes out to carry out a task and leave. So, they only see maybe 10 minutes of the fire, whereas in the ASM role you see four hours of the fire.”
“When you are in the heat of the battle, there is no room for extraneous thoughts,” Ponts said. “You have to always be thinking three drops ahead.”
Ponts said the best way to describe the role of an ASM is relate it to double Dutch jump roping. With two ropes going once, each plane and helicopter has to get in to complete their task, and get out when they are done, sequencing the planes and helicopters to have a seamless flow.
“And you can have 15 planes and helicopters in that double Dutch jump rope, and it’s smooth and its seamless,” Ponts said.
Regardless of whether they are in the military or working for the forest service, people involved in the training this week echoed the importance of the mission.
“I like the challenge of the mission, to test the skills of each aviator and each team position,” said Maj. Erik Christensen, scheduler assigned to the 152nd Operations Group, Nevada Air National Guard. “I think we see more of a direct impact on the domestic front and MAFFS is right at the forefront.”
Ponts said there is a lot of conversation amongst tanker pilots, helicopter pilots and himself after a fire — discussing the fire and looking for ways to improve.
“It’s like any job,” Ponts said. “You are going to the office and working with the same people, but our office moves around the country.”