Airmen continue fight on Southern California wildfires

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • National Guard Bureau
Four specially equipped Modular Airborne Firefighting System C-130 Hercules aircraft joined the massive firefighting effort in Southern California Oct. 23 and continue to fly missions as weakening winds allowed an aerial assault on the state's destructive wildfires. 

Since Oct. 24, the Air National Guard C-130 crews and aircraft have flown more than 12 missions, dropping 32,400 gallons of fire retardant.

Strong winds can thwart these aerial missions flown by Airmen from the North Carolina and Wyoming Air National Guard, because wind disperses the orange-colored retardant before it hits the ground. 

The Airmen are operating from Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif., and are flying missions into the San Diego area. An Air Force Reserve Command MAFFS-equipped C-130 from the 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado joined them. 

The North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing has deployed nearly 50 Airmen as well as four C-130s, two of them equipped with MAFFS. The Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing has deployed two MAFFS-equipped C-130s and air crews. 

In all, more than 2,500 Army and Air National Guard members continue their fight to save lives, rescue victims and ease the suffering of those affected by the wildfire devastation in Southern California. 

"The size of this operation is enormous," said Lt. Col. Brian Ratchford, an aircraft commander with the 145th AW. "The size of  the fire is so much larger than I have ever done." 

A pilot since 1987 and a veteran of every major U.S. combat mission since Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, Colonel Ratchford has fought California wildfires from the air before. 

"We hope to fly as many missions as we can and drop as much retardant as we can," he said. "I would like to see all the fires out before we leave." 

"It's rewarding that we are out here doing a real mission and really helping someone out and trying to keep these folk's houses from burning up," said Senior Master Sgt. Andy Honeycutt, an aircraft loadmaster with the 145th AW. 

MAFFS are owned by the U.S. Forest Service and are flown on Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command aircraft. Each unit is made up of five tanks with dissemination tubes that run out the aircraft's cargo ramp. They weigh 10,500 pounds and are normally loaded with 25,000 pounds of fire retardant. The orange-colored retardant is mixed with water. When dropped, the mixture coats fuel sources such as dry grass, brush and trees to keep the fire from spreading. 

"We are fortunate that we got these units, and that we are able to come out here and be a part to this," Sergeant Honeycutt said. "I hope we are doing some good out here." 

The aircraft have an aircrew of six: A pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and two loadmasters. The co-pilot normally discharges the retardant from the cockpit. 

The aircraft takes off with the cargo ramp open so they can dump the load in an emergency. The tanks are pressurized and can release 3,000 gallons of retardant in less than five seconds, Sergeant Honeycutt said. 

"We can release it all at one time, or we can make three drops of 1,000 gallons or two drops of 1,500 gallons," he said. "It all depends on the type of fire line." 

"The air attack guys that run the fire make the determination whether their aircraft can aid them," Colonel Ratchford said. "Most of time they can." 

The aircraft follow a smaller, lead aircraft to the fire. 

If a mission is called off, Colonel Ratchford said, it's usually due to bad visibility from smoke and haze, which is the greatest challenge. 

"That's where you can't see the mountains you're flying around," he said. "We're flying slowly at around 150 feet over a mountainous terrain with a heavy aircraft." 

Weather permitting, Colonel Ratchford said they are returning to reload their aircraft and immediately flying back to the fires. They can reload in as little as 15 minutes. 

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