Air Force, forest service team to fight California fires

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More than 50 years ago, the Air Force and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service teamed up to equip aircraft with the capability to fight large-scale fires -- a union that is yielding huge dividends in the battle against the raging wildfires that broke out in southern California earlier this week.

In 1956, World War II bombers were converted into air tankers, and retired passenger aircraft were transformed and fitted with tanks for dropping fire retardant or water, according to the Forest Service.

Today, the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and U.S. Forest Service jointly use the C-130 Hercules equipped with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System to fight wildfires. The pressurized, 3,000-gallon tanks use two tubes to drop retardant or water from the rear of the plane in less than five seconds, according to the Forest Service. The load covers an area a quarter mile long and 60 feet wide, and acts as a barrier to keep fires from spreading.

According to the Forest Service, the formal relationship between the Air Force and Forest Service began in the 1970s when numerous major fires in California overwhelmed the civilian air tanker fleet. As a result, Congress asked the Air Force to make military aircraft available as a back-up measure. 

Today, Department of Defense assets are called in for emergency support to supplement the civilian fleet.

"We let the civilian tanker fleet take care of the issues first," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the Air Force Reserve Command MAFFS program coordinator at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. "If they need assistance, that's when the Department of Defense will roll in. We don't compete for business with civilian (aerial firefighting) companies. Usually if you see us taking off, you know the situation is pretty critical."

Currently, six MAFFS-equipped Air Force C-130s from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves are operating in San Diego, Calif., in support of efforts to fight fires there that have already destroyed 482,000 acres of land and more than 1,800 homes.

(Maj. James R. Wilson, 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this article) 

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