Airborne Fire Fighters Gather for Training at Peterson Air Force Base

An Air Force C-130 sprays fire retardent over a wildfire area in this file photo. The Air Force is grounding all firefighting-equipped C-130 planes after the fatal crash of one in southwestern South Dakota.
An Air Force C-130 sprays fire retardant over a wildfire area in this file photo. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Two enormous wildfires made Pikes Peak region residents grew painfully aware of what C-130 aircraft look like.

During the 2012 Waldo Canyon and 2013 Black Forest fires, the large, gray, bloated planes poured thousands of gallons of red fire retardant over the Pike National Forest and through wooded, residential areas in northern El Paso County.

"It's a very iconic picture," said Ann Skarban, a spokeswoman for the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base.

On Friday, Skarban and a group of Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System crewmen gathered in a hangar near one of the humongous C-130s. They shared stories of past missions, explained how the MAFFS works and prepared for their annual training. The group of Air Force reservists will head to Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in California on Tuesday for a week of instruction.

Brad Ross, an instructor and MAFFS crewman for the 302nd, said each MAFFS unit usually does its own training. But this year, all four of the Airlift Wings will be in California together.

"Typically we're on our own," Ross said. "But it's good to get together and learn things from the other units and pass on our experiences."

Along with the 302nd that calls Peterson home, there are units based in Wyoming, North Carolina and California.

MAFFS missions are quite quick, Ross said. The aircraft fly for about 10 minutes to meet up with a lead plan. They receive their orders on where to drop the retardant that is mostly water with ammonium sulfate, a jelling agent and red dye mixed in. The six-person crew finds the drop location and disperses 3,000 gallons of retardant in as little as five seconds before returning to base for a reload.

Ross has been flying MAFFS missions for nine years. He said the C-130s' and their crews' main job is to give support to "boots on the ground," reinforcing fire lines made by firefighters carrying picks, axes and shovels. Ross said his job has taken him all over the West on missions, but noted that he was privileged to man a C-130 that fought the more than 14,000-acre Black Forest Fire in 2013.

"It's very rewarding," the 10-year resident of the Colorado Springs area said of all his missions. "It's even more poignant when it's in your own backyard."

When the crew returns from training and waits for its orders to deploy, it hopes that the 2016 wildfire season will be a slow one.

Chris Barth, a U.S. Forest Service representative, was also at Peterson on Friday, talking about the 43-year partnership between the USFS and the MAFFS units. Barth, who works out of Lakewood and has been involved in wildland-fire suppression for more than 20 years, also spoke about this year's fire season in Colorado.

"The outlook is going to be average to slightly below average," Barth said, noting that 2016 could see lower fire danger than most years.

He said if there is one area that fire officials will be watching extra closely, it is be the southwest part of the state where he said temperatures are predicted to be hot this summer. Barth also said people living in densely populated areas like Colorado Springs and along the entire Front Range need to always be mindful of mitigation and actions that could spark a fire, especially in the Wildland Urban Interface.

"When you have more people, there are just more people out using public lands," he said. "But we don't know where the fires are going to be."

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