In Boise, Idaho, in late April, near the National Interagency Fire Center, a few planes were about to pass: a smaller lead plane and a huge C-130 Hercules tanker ready to drop thousands of gallons of water.
This training was for a special team of military personnel who will help fight wildfires if the Forest Service’s private contractor fleet cannot keep up with demand. The team is called MAFFS, which stands for Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems.
“We fly C-130 aircraft that are DOD assets – Department of Defense C-130s – that we can fly anywhere in the world, do low-flying, airdrop missions, just transporting things from point A to point B,” said Varun Purohit, pilot and MAFF commander-in-training.
According to the Forest Service, it is budgeting $2.5 million for the five-day training with about 400 participants.
Purohit said fighting forest fires was not an integral part of his job, but MAFFS crews have been increasingly used in recent years.
Forest service and military personnel say all eight MAFFS air tankers were deployed in 2020 and 2021. Last year was the group’s second busiest fire season in 49 years, including 96 days of support military to fight fires.
This year is shaping up to be another extreme wildfire season in the Southwest, so having this backup can be especially helpful.
MAFFS crews train every year to fight fires in Boise, home of the National Interagency Fire Center, but crews come from all over. The eight MAFFS tankers are based in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Reno, Nevada; and near Oxnard, California.
Lt. Col. Purohit came from Cheyenne, where he works with the Wyoming Air National Guard. He said wildfires are often the toughest missions they do.
“We are at high altitude. It is very hot,” he said. “Basically, you optimize the performance of the aircraft. It’s challenging, but I think that’s kind of what makes it unique and maybe appealing in some ways.
The challenge is to drop these massive planes low and fly slowly through thick smoke, mountainous terrain and sometimes heavy air traffic.
It is dangerous work.
Last year, a private company air tanker pilot died in northern Colorado while trying to help fight the Kruger Rock Fire at night – something that isn’t usually done because it’s so dangerous. A few years ago, two pilots from Idaho died along the Utah-Nevada border fighting another large fire.
But Purohit said when he fights fires he can see the direct effects of his work.
“We just dropped on the edge of the fire. This line held. We helped the guys on the ground to do their job,” he said.
It’s not just the pilots who have come to train in Boise. There were also ground crews and flight engineers, such as Chief Master Sgt. Cameron Peters. He came from Reno, where he is with the Nevada Air National Guard. He said engineers like him monitor all kinds of systems and make sure checklists are met.
“They really are the conscience of the crew. They bring adult supervision into the cockpit,” he said with a smile.
For Pieters, fighting forest fires has its challenges.
“You can show up somewhere where the terrain is very rough, where the smoke is very thick,” he said. “’Exciting’ is probably not the word I would use. I would use ‘spicy’ or ‘sporty’.
This special MAFF team is only called in when there are not enough contractors for the Forest Service to fight large wildfires. But if that happens, Pieters said this training will help ensure they are ready.
“That’s where we can knock down the cobwebs, knock down the dust and make sure we’re able to get out there and perform to the level that the US Forest Service asks us to. do during fire season.”
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