Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) are military C-130 transport planes that can be converted to serve as fire fighting airtankers. The C-130 can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. The CAL FIRE S-2T airtanker carries 1200 gallons.
MAFFS are requested only when all other fire service aircraft are committed to major, extended incidents. They are considered a 24-hour resource, meaning that when ordered, it will be at least 24 hours before they can be expected on duty. When ordered, MAFFS must be taken from their regular military duties and then fitted with fire fighting airtanker equipment.
There are eight MAFFS in the United States. Two are stationed in California, the rest around the nation. All eight have been committed to California fires in the past.
As with most emergency incidents, a MAFFS activation involves a whole lot of activity for the "Stand-Up", which is military talk for getting everyone and everything where they should be and doing what they are supposed to.
And as with most incidents, MAFFS flight operations inevitably slow down, which usually means the fire activity has similarly slowed down. One of the MAFFS Mission Commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Davis put it well when he said.
"The good news is that when we become idle it means there are no fires."
When the operational considerations dictate that it is time to "Stand-Down", which is military talk for getting everyone and everything back to their home base and ready for their next assignment, the logistical activity definitely steps up.
Lynn Ballard (U.S. Forest Service), who was the third (of four) Mission Liaison Officer (MLO), pointed out that the flurry of activity markedly increases during both the Stand-Up and Stand-Down phases of the activation. Ballard expressed the challenge of getting everyone home and all the equipment back where it belongs.
Yes, and it might just take planes, trains, and rental cars to make it all happen.
A MAFFS activation requires a herculean effort to set up and take down. In the case of the recent McClellan deployment, eight massive C-130 aircraft were scattered at bases across the country and had to be matched up to the eight, slip-in MAFFS modules. And that's just the aircraft. There are many areas of critical support functions, without which the planes literally would not fly.
"Doing the numbers:" from that first lightning strike-caused fire in the latter part of June until the first week in August the fleet of MAFFS-equipped aircraft completed 477 sorties (flights) dropping 1,313,900 gallons of fire retardant. The planes were flown 682 hours from a total of three ground bases: initially in Chico; then relocated to the primary logistical support and reload base at McClellan (near Sacramento); and later a re-load base at the California Air National Guard's Channel Islands facility to provide aerial firefighting support closer to the fires in southern California.
The air and ground crews provided aerial fire fighting efforts to 15 wildfires; some of which were individual large fires and some were "complexes," which involved multiple fires.
A key element for the mission success was the myriad of support functions, including the ground crew responsibilities of maintaining and repairing the aircraft and the slip-in retardant delivery system, the loading of thousands of gallons of fire retardant and jet fuel.
Operationally critical was the command and control functions that coordinated and directed the aircraft missions, which begin with the morning briefing sessions and included the dispatch operations and the air traffic control tower function.
Of course, the core equipment ingredient of the MAFFS mission was the amazing aircraft itself, the venerable C-130.
And the planes would not go anywhere without the highly qualified and motivated pilots who flew directly into harms way, that being the out-of-control wildland fires, as well as the pilots of the lead planes who showed them the safest path through the smoke.
Some of the milestones were cause for recognition, such as the million gallons of fire retardant that was dropped to support the firefighters on the ground.
Visits by a number of important "D.V.'s" (distinguished visitors) were evidence for the high visibility of the mission at hand. The role call of this prestigious group included the Governor of the State of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger; a high-ranking Pentagon official, Mr. Verga; and Four Star General Victor E. Renuart, Jr.
The many Mission Reports listed below may have presented a picture of an amazing group of people doing a difficult and dangerous job, but it is difficult to fully capture the spirit and heart of the military members of the team, working alongside with local, state and federal agency employees.
Maybe Staff Chief Tom Hoffman (CAL FIRE), the Mission Liaison Officer who coordinated the Stand Up of this year's early fire season activation and happens to be one of the veteran MLOs said it best:
"I've been doing this for almost 15 years now and the thrill of working with the C-130's never wears off. The MAFFS mission is one of the best kept secrets in the fire service; anyone that gets an assignment to support the MAFFS always wants to come back again for the next activation."
And finally, Chief Hoffman stated,
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the privilege to work with the finest men and women the military has to offer. Their camaraderie, professionalism and commitment to the mission are second to none."