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California Guard Gets Green Light for New Airborne Firefighting System

By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 2, 2009 – A long-anticipated upgrade to the modular airborne firefighting system that’s used to battle the nation's wildfires recently was approved for operational use.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A California Air National Guard C-130J Hercules cargo aircraft from the 146th Airlift Wing releases water in a test of a new modular airborne firefighting system Jan. 28, 2009. The 146th is the first unit to be approved for use of the new MAFFS II system. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Buttner
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The approval comes months before the next fire season, National Guard Bureau officials said.

MAFFS II, as the new system is known, was approved for use on the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing C-130J Hercules cargo aircraft.

The state has two of the new systems, which were showcased Jan. 30 to state officials and local media at McClellan Air Park in Sacramento, Calif.

MAFFS modules are owned by the U.S. Forest Service and are flown on Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 aircraft. Guard and Reserve wings, state governors and firefighting and federal agencies team up to operate MAFFS nationwide in wildfire responses. The aircraft and crews always are ready to deploy in anticipation of a state emergency, officials said.

"This new system is more capable; it can make a more effective [wildfire] retardant line and is more efficient," said Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Dave Condit, deputy commander of the MAFFS Expeditionary Air Group, which overseas three Air National Guard wings and one Air Force Reserve wing. "For those two reasons combined, we hope it's a more effective resource for fighting wildfires."

The system's orange-colored mixture of fire retardant and water coats fuel sources such as dry grass, brush and trees to keep a fire from spreading.

Condit said seven aircrews are trained in the new system and certified by the Forest Service.

MAFFS II eventually will replace all of the wings' older systems, Condit said.

"We hope that throughout this 2009 wildfire season, we will fully integrate the new equipment on all MAFFS aircraft," he said. He added that the older systems will be stored and kept ready to use on a moment's notice. The wildfire season comprises spring and summer.

Bringing MAFFS II to the fire line has taken ”huge amounts” of cross-agency coordination and cooperation among MAFFS II designers at Aero Union, the Forest Service, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jerry Stoddard, Air National Guard MAFFS spokesman, said. "This capability is going to increase our nation's ability to protect itself against wildfires."

California has not had a firefighting capability on its C-130s since late 2006, which caused public concern over the ability to protect the state from wildfires, officials said. In 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President George W. Bush asking that the state's Air Guard have MAFFS II for its wildfire response.

"This [MAFFS] asset is an important federal resource that we have relied upon in the past," Schwarzenegger wrote.

That year, California "suffered severe fires … driven by high temperatures, dry conditions, and strong Santa Ana winds," according to National Climatic Data Center reports. "Mid-November fires ravaged much of Southern California, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of dwellings."

To support California, the nation’s three remaining MAFFS wings -- the Wyoming Air Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing, the North Carolina Air Guard's 145th Airlift Wing and the Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado flew numerous fire retardant drops.

Condit said the arrival of MAFFS II in California will add to the state's critical wildfire assets. "Having that extra key member back again and fully capable is a big plus for the organization," he said.

(Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

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