September 17, 2018 (by 2nd Lt. Emerson Marcus) - Wildland firefighters rarely find themselves out of the woods.
USAF C-130 from the 152nd AW, Nevada ANG, visible through the trees during MAFFS, training on April 24, 2018. The 152nd recently completed a month-long activation fighting fires around California. [USAF photo by 2nd Lt. Emerson Marcus]
The most destructive fire in California history, the Tubbs Fire, occurred last year outside the typical fire season in mid-October.
But, for now, a demanding fire season that charred more than 1.2 million acres of California appears to have slowed down, at least relatively, and military units supporting federal firefighters have returned home.
One element of the multi-pronged firefight, the use of military C-130 units operating the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, ended a month-long request for service in late August.
For the first year since joining the four-unit MAFFS team in 2016, the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing, commonly known as the "High Rollers," saw significant time over fires.
The 152nd aircrew flew 104 sorties and dropped more than 2.4 million pounds of fire retardant. Combined, the four-unit Air Expeditionary Group — comprised of the 152nd and three other C-130 military airlift wings — flew a total of 283 sorties and dropped 7 million pounds of retardant this year. These numbers include activations in Colorado in early July.
During the August activation, MAFFS aircraft flew in and out of McClellan Air Tanker Reload Base in Sacramento, dropping retardant near fires across the state, from San Bernardino in the south to the Oregon border in the north, said Lt. Col. Michael Fugett, a 152nd Airlift Wing pilot.
The military’s role in federal, wildland firefighting focuses on assisting the contracted civilian fleet. Once the civilian fleet is stretched thin and in need of additional support, federal agencies direct military aircraft to locations in need of support — often the worst fire spots.
"Where conditions were the worst, that’s where we were going," Fugett said of this year's activation.
The herculean task demanded a team effort from countless state and federal agencies. Mandated by federal law, aircrew work a maximum of six days straight before taking a minimum of one day off. And with the constant demand for drops, maintainers on the ground worked long hours ensuring aircraft readiness for the next request.
Members of the 152nd Airlift Wing rotated in and out throughout the month-long activation. One of the other four MAFFS units, the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, supported the activation with aircrew operating 152nd Airlift Wing planes.
"We couldn’t have done it without Wyoming," Fugett said. "They supplied us with aircrew to supplement us since we are so new and we don’t have as many aircrew trained up. They supplied aircrew for one plane the entire time. They spent the entire month helping us."
"At our standardization during MAFFS spring training (in April), Wyoming and Nevada were able to blend crews and seamlessly operate in what is a very complex, demanding environment," said Maj. Neil Harlow, Wyoming Air National Guard MAFFS coordinator. "Wyoming is here to continue to train and support our sister unit in Nevada to obtain goals as a fully staffed and functioning MAFFS unit."
When the 152nd Airlift Wing was named in 2016 the newest of the four military units to support the U.S. Forest Service with MAFFS, initial predictions anticipated it taking four years for the unit to certify a full aircrew. The certification process demanded a certain amount of time in the air over actual fires with other units and extensive training.
With assistance from Wyoming and the other MAFFS units in California and Colorado, along with the amount of hours over fires this year, the High Rollers have certified enough aircrew to fly autonomous missions anytime for federal or state requests, Fugett said.
"It’s wonderful, because now when we get called out, I don’t have to call anyone else, I have tactical control over my team," he said. "It’s been a very productive, busy and successful fire season."