A year to the week after four airmen were lost from the N.C. Air National Guard while fighting wildfires, the Charlotte-based unit has been called up again to head west.
Three C-130s will lift off Sunday from the base at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and head to Mesa, Ariz., to fight a new outbreak of wildfires. Their assignment comes less than a week after 19 firefighters were killed on the ground while battling a raging wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix.
A year ago, four Charlotte-based crewmen were killed on a mission when a sudden downdraft hurled their aircraft into a mesa in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Charlotte's Air National Guard unit is one of four in the nation, and the only one on the East Coast, equipped with what are called MAFFS units. Mobile Airborne Fire-Fighting Systems are van-sized tanks that are loaded onto C-130 cargo planes to spread fire retardant from low altitudes.
Two C-130s from the base are equipped with the MAFFS gear, and a third carries support personnel. In all, about 30 members of the N.C. Air Guard unit will be on the mission, Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap of the N.C. Air National Guard said Wednesday.
Led by small spotter planes operated by the U.S. Forest Service, the C-130 crews can dump 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant along the leading edge of a wildfire in less than five seconds, covering an area a quarter-mile long and 100 feet wide. Back at base, a MAFFS tanker can recharge its load in less than 12 minutes and return to the fire.
Arizona authorities have been battling wind-driven wildfires since mid-June.
Dunlap said the air unit from Charlotte is expected to be deployed about two weeks.