Since 1974, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Defense have operated under the joint program using the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, more commonly known as MAFFS, which is employed by rolling into the back of a military C-130 aircraft.
MAFFS is activated by the Forest Service to bolster wildfire suppression efforts when all commercial air tankers are fully committed or not readily available. This is through an agreement between the USDA, Forest Service and the Department of Defense. MAFFS can also be activated for use on state fires by the Governors of the states where the Air National Guard flight crews are based.
“Spring training is where we knock off the cobwebs,” said Chief Master Sgt. Cameron Pieters, flight engineer assigned to the 152nd Operations Group. “We haven’t flown any aerial firefighting since last season and this is to prepare us and get us ready for the upcoming fire season.”
During this year’s spring training, MAFFS equipped military C-130s flew a total of 149 sorties, 184.52 hours, disbursing of a total of 433,065 gallons of water in 902 drops across multiple drop zones around the Boise and Gowen Field area.
“We are grateful for the community support provided by the people near Gowen Field, Idaho as our flight and aircraft ground crew members accomplished intense and vital wildfire training to be ready for the nation’s needs,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Kirk Pierce, commander, First Air Force, Air Forces Northern. “I’m also proud of the dedication and teamwork of the military joint force and interagency team.”
The four military MAFFS units include: the 152nd Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard; the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Each MAFFS unit has two C-130s identified by a big orange number on every side of the C-130 aircraft and on its tail. Respectively, the Nevada Air National Guard has tails 8 and 9; Wyoming Air National Guard has tails 1 and 3; California Air National Guard has tails 4 and 6; and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve has numbers 2 and 5.
“This is a huge joint operation and in order for us to be successful, it takes a lot of relationship building,” said Maj. Alex Kassebaum, 192nd Airlift Squadron Director of Operations.
The agencies involved with the training included the Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Forest Service, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the Bureau of Land Management and CAL FIRE.
Spring training is an opportunity for the air and ground crews to refine and sharpen their skills to operate as an effective team, as well as to train and certify new members of the team.
“It’s about getting into the right mindset,” said Pieters. “As a flight engineer it’s our responsibility to support the pilots, we go through the checklists, we monitor all the systems. Having good communication with the other crew members ensures we have a safe flight.”
“Last season was a big firefighting season for us,” said Pieters. “We were deployed for 96 days and as a MAFFS community, we dropped nearly 23 million pounds of fire retardant.”
Approximately 70,000 wildfires burn an average of about 6.5 million acres of land in the United States each year. Airtankers are used to drop fire retardant to reduce the intensity and slow the growth of wildfires so that firefighters on the ground can build containment lines around them. Airtankers are not typically used to drop fire retardant to suppress wildfires directly.
In the event of activation during the fire year, First Air Force (AFNORTH), U.S. Northern Command's Air Component Command, is the DoD's operational lead for the aerial military efforts to support USDA Forest Service-National Interagency Fire Center requests for fire suppression support.