Air Force teams work to tame Colorado wildfires
(U.S. Air Force graphic, photo by Staff Sgt. Stephany D. Richards)
6/26/2012 - COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- An Air Force team from the active duty, Air National Guard, the Air Reserve and the Air Force Academy have mobilized to help fight the quickly spreading Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., that has burned more than 3,500 acres.
The request for assistance from the National Interagency Fire Center to the Department of Defense requested four C-130 air tankers capable of transporting and employing Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems or MAFFS, along with appropriate command and control and support personnel to assist in fire fighting.
Two MAFFS-equipped aircraft from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard have joined similar C-130s from the 302nd Airlift Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs.
Three MAFFS-equipped C-130s began their first day of operations, dropping retardant to mitigate fires burning in the Pike National Forest as a result of the Waldo Canyon fire, which began June 23.
"Our number one goal is to take care of citizens in their time of need," said Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov, deputy director of operations for U.S. Northern Command based at Peterson. "We have eight tankers like these in the country, and half of them will be brought to bear on the fires here."
MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.
"Since they've started, we have been monitoring the fires and have had our aircrews, aircraft and the MAFFS systems in a state of readiness anticipating a possible tasking from the U.S. Forest Service," said Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, 302nd Airlift Wing chief of aerial firefighting.
The MAFFS units themselves are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, one of several federal and state agencies responsible for wildland fire suppression comprising the NIFC in Boise, Idaho.
At the Air Force Academy, officials with the 306th Flying Training Group canceled the Academy's normal flying operations and set up a command center to coordinate the helicopter flights to be used for firefighting efforts. They also set up makeshift sleeping quarters with help from the 10th Mission Support Group.
"We have shower facilities here," said Jerry Miranda, chief of airfield management for the 306th FTG. "They gave us the mats and the towels. We had people sleeping here Saturday and Sunday because they had nowhere else to go -- all the hotels in town were full."
Land Management officials began working with the Academy to set up a staging area here after a fire in Beaver Creek burned about 100 acres along the Front Range in August 2011, Miranda said. The staging area sits due west of the scenic overlook on Interstate 25 at Mile Marker 151. The helicopters are sorted by weight, with the lightest aircraft on the south and the heaviest ones on the north.
Each of the helicopters there has its own equipment and personnel. Officials with the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management oversee their operations, Miranda said.
"Everyone here has been very nice, very accommodating," said Justin Jager, a helicopter crew supervisor with the Bureau of Land Management. "This area serves our purposes perfectly. It's the best area around for what we want to do."
Miranda said he appreciates what the Forest Service officials are doing and how the 10th ABW has offered its support.
"Col. Tim Gibson and the 10th ABW were on it like you wouldn't believe," he added.
On Monday, June 25, C-130s began flying out of Peterson Air Force Base and Pueblo Memorial Airport. Each C-130 can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, which helps impede a fire's spread, said Thompson. MAFFS-equipped C-130s fly "low and slow," descending to just 150 feet above ground level to drop retardant ahead of likely burn areas.
"We finished training in April in the exact same place (Peterson AFB) to prepare for the same scenario," Thompson said.
"We're not going to put it out," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the 731st Airlift Squadron commander. "Our job is to support the firefighters on the ground. We're not the experts -- we're relying on interagency partnerships to know where to go, how to get there and what to do when we get there.
"One important difference is the time. In April, we knew when we were going to hold the exercise," Condit continued. "With this, we had to call people in the middle of the night to come up to the base and get set up. They had to call their employers and cancel their vacation plans ... but a lot of folks volunteered. Almost as soon as that first plume of smoke went up, my phone started ringing off the hook with reservists saying, 'If they call us up, call me.'"
Terry McCann, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, said Forest Service officials were "excited" to have MAFFS capability. He explained the decision-making process behind activating the C-130s.
"The request has to be made first, and the requirement for activating MAFFS is that commercial and contracted air tankers have to be completely in use or otherwise unavailable," McCann explained. The request goes to the regional dispatch center, which in this case is the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. From there, it goes to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. A multi-agency command reviews national availability of firefighting resources: if no other resources are available, it authorizes the MAFFS request.
McCann cautioned against too much optimism, however, noting that MAFFS, while significant, is just one tool in the toolbox.
"The bottom line is, when you get containment, it's from the people on the ground," he said.
The Waldo Canyon fire was five percent contained as of Monday afternoon. It is not expected to affect Class of 2016 in-processing, scheduled to begin Thursday. Trails on the west side of the Academy are closed, but the New Santa Fe and Falcon trails are still open. The Farish Recreation Area and all roads leading to Farish are closed. Off base, U.S. Highway 24 is closed in both directions between Manitou Springs and Woodland Park.
The C-130s will also help fight the High Park fire in northern Colorado, which at more than 83,000 acres is the second-largest fire in Colorado history. The largest was the Hayman fire, at more than 138,000 acres burned. However, the High Park fire is the most destructive fire in state history, having burned nearly 250 homes compared to 133 that were destroyed in the Hayman fire. In addition to High Park and Waldo Canyon, firefighters are battling eight other fires throughout the state.
Across town at Peterson Air Force Base, fire departments from the 21st and 721st Civil Engineer Squadrons are providing manning and fire truck support to Colorado Springs as local fire crews fight the Waldo Canyon fire.
The 721st CES from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is providing six firefighters and one fire truck for structural defense near the Waldo Canyon fire. "We are honored to help our fellow emergency responders in their brave endeavor to fight the forest fires, and we will continue to support them in any way possible," said Col. Chris Crawford, 21st Space Wing commander.
(Compiled from related articles by 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley, 153rd Wing Public Affairs, Don Branum, Air Force Academy Public Affairs and from NORTHCOM Public Affairs)