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NEWS | Oct. 5, 2012

MAFFS units set records this wildfire season, full of highs and lows

By Army National Guard Sgt. Darron Salzer National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - Crews who fly the Air National Guard's Modular Airborne Firefighting System-equipped C-130 Hercules returned to their homestation due to favorable wildfire conditions this month, closing out what Air Guard officials said was an historic season for the joint Department of Defense and U.S. Forest Service program.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can be loaded into the cargo area of a C-130. The unit can discharge up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds and be refilled in less than 12.

The three Air Guard wings - and one Air Force Reserve Command Wing - that fly the MAFFS-equipped C-130s dropped record-setting amounts of fire retardant and water this wildfire season.

Air Guard officials said as of Sept. 14, totals for the four MAFFS wings that battled wildfires in 10 states were: 922 missions; 888.7 total flight hours; 1,011 fire retardant and water drops; 2,449,679 gallons dropped; and 22,292,079 pounds of water and retardant dropped.

"We've had a very busy season," said Air Force Lt. Col. Donald Taylor, the 153rd Air Expeditionary Group acting commander. "Although our planes and crews have returned home, we all know MAFFS can still be reactivated well into the fall."

Guard officials said not only was this season the second busiest in history— surpassed only by the MAFFS season of 1994 when approximately 5 million gallons of retardant was dropped—but this season was also the first year since 2008 that all four MAFFS wings were activated at the same time.

In a season with so many milestones, the Air Guard also saw tragedy when one of the MAFFS-equipped C-130s from the North Carolina's 145th Airlift Wing, MAFFS 7, crashed near Edgemont, S.D., July 1 while crews battled the White Draw wildfire there. Four of the aircraft's six crewmembers were killed, and officials said it was the first major incident in the history of the MAFFS mission.

The 145th AW returned to the MAFFS mission more than a month later, relieving the MAFFS crews from the California Air Guard's 146th Airlift Wing for three weeks due to maintenance said Air Guard officials.

At the time, Air Force Col. Roger Williams Jr., 145th Operations Group commander, said, "Our folks from Charlotte are ready to re-join our MAFFS brothers and sisters in the fire fighting going on in the Northwest of our country. We all feel it is extremely important for our people to get back to this critical mission and we will carry the memory of MAFFS 7 in our hearts as the wildland fire fighting continues."

Officials within the U.S. Forest Service and at the National Interagency Fire Center stressed the importance of the MAFFS capability now and into the foreseeable future.

"The role of MAFFS has been to provide a ‘surge' capability that can be used to boost wildfire suppression efforts when commercial airtankers are fully committed or not readily available," said officials at the NIFC.

"Eight MAFFS[-equipped aircraft from the Air Guard] is the number that has been identified as appropriate to provide that capability … and that is what we are planning on having for the 2013 fire season," they said.

Even though officially the MAFFS units have been pulled back for this season, Air Guard leaders said there is always the possible need to provide support - whether this year or next.