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NEWS | June 29, 2012

Wyoming Air National Guard MAFFS unit eager to continue fight against Colorado wildfires

By Tech. Sgt. Daniel Butterfield 153rd Air Expeditionary Group

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - The heavy smell of smoke and a thick haze greeted members of the 731st Expeditionary Air Squadron as they arrived on the flightline during the early morning June 27 here to prepare the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft for another day of aerial fire-fighting.

The day before saw significant MAFFS activity as the four C-130s, two from the Air Force Reserve Command's 302nd Airlift Wing and two from the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing dropped 65,000 gallons of fire retardant on wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region.

Despite such an active day with so many gallons dropped, the mood was heavy as many of those involved in the operation were locally stationed Airmen who knew family and friends who had been affected by the wildfires. But even with their thoughts on those going through incredible hardships, the members of the 731 EAS were eager to get back into the fight.

"It's a little stressful. Some of them have evacuees in their home," said Air Force Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, chief of aerial firefighting with the 302nd Airlift Wing. "Some are worried how far the fire is going to go, if it's going to get close to their home, but they are dealing with it."

Despite that, the Airmen are still focused on the mission at hand.

"We feel almost helpless," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Raymond Durban, an avionics technician from the 302nd Maintenance Group, who is assisting with the refilling of the MAFFS units and knew co-workers who had to evacuate. "But we are bearing down and ready to go this morning. We are just waiting for the go-ahead from the (U.S.) Forest Service."

The Waldo Canyon fire grew in size by thousands of acres in days past due to shifting and increased winds, despite the best efforts of the C-130 aircrews and the entire unified command team.

"We've dropped on a lot of really big fires," said Air Force Maj. Neil Harlow, a pilot with the Wyoming Air Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing. "But nothing we've seen like this as far as close proximity to major cities, so you have a little more sense of urgency that we've got to get these drops and get them right the first time."

And that can sometimes be difficult.

"The smoke, especially down at the Waldo Canyon fire, has made it difficult to see the targets," said Harlow.

The MAFFS-equipped C-130 aircrews are expected to make continuing drops of retardant on the Waldo Canyon throughout the coming days.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service 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.

In addition to the 153rd and 302nd Airlift Wings, two other Air National Guard units, the 146th AW, Channel Islands, Calif., and the 145th AW, Charlotte, N.C., possess the ability to assist federal, state and local wildland fire fighting agencies and organizations with MAFFS.

The MAFFS program is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense.