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MAFFS training in Tucson prepares units for upcoming fire season

Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units converged on Tucson, Ariz., in May to take part in MAFFS certification and training 2009. The Modular Airborne Firefighting System is an important and effective tool used to fight wildfires nationwide and is placed onboard the C-130 Hercules aircraft. Four units across the country continue the MAFFS legacy which began in the early 1970s; the 153rd Airlift Wing, Cheyenne, Wyo., ANG, the 145th Airlift Wing, Charlotte, N.C., ANG, the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands, Calif., ANG, and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex Koenig)

Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units converged on Tucson, Ariz., in May to take part in MAFFS certification and training 2009. The Modular Airborne Firefighting System is an important and effective tool used to fight wildfires nationwide and is placed onboard the C-130 Hercules aircraft. Four units across the country continue the MAFFS legacy which began in the early 1970s; the 153rd Airlift Wing, Cheyenne, Wyo., ANG, the 145th Airlift Wing, Charlotte, N.C., ANG, the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands, Calif., ANG, and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex Koenig)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Returning fresh from last year's wildfire season, more than 300 National Guard and Reserve Airmen are hoping that their Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) training here this week will give them the edge over destructive blazes that can spark at any time.

Officials say that 78,979 wild land fires burned 5,292,468 acres in 2008 - slightly higher than the 10-year average. As of May 4, there are already 11,878 more wildfires than last year at this time, and the greater firefighting season is still ahead, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. The wildfire season starts June 1.

For the Air National Guard, getting Airmen and equipment ready for a state call-up was the purpose of the training here at Tucson International Airport.

The annual training also provides the recertification required by the U.S. Forest Service prior to the fire season.

"We do this every year prior to the main fire season to ensure everybody is trained and ready to go and is proficient as possible for when the fire season does start," said Lt. Col. Wylie Walno, a pilot from the Wyoming Air Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing, who was serving here as the training commander.

Air National Guard units from North Carolina, Wyoming and California operate three squadrons with MAFFS-equipped, C-130 Hercules aircraft. The Air Force Reserve operates one MAFFS squadron.

All operational MAFFS aircraft were flown during the training, including the latest MAFFS II system now operated by the California Air Guard's 146th Airlift Wing based at Channel Islands Air National Guard Base.

From a staging area at the international airport, ground support crews sweated under the sun and hustled around their aircraft through a mix of triple digit heat and hotter engine exhaust.

The aircraft, loaded with thousands of pounds of water, lumbered on takeoff, following a lead aircraft across the southwestern Sonoran desert, toward the mountains to make their practice fire retardant drops.

MAFFS and the newest MAFFS II are owned by the U.S. Forest Service and are flown on military aircraft. The older system consists of five tanks with dissemination tubes that run out the aircraft's cargo ramp. The tanks are loaded with 3,000 gallons of orange-colored fire retardant and water, which coats fuel sources, such as dry grass, brush and trees to keep fire from spreading.

The flight line surrounding the training area was strewn with equipment and water hoses. Although it may have looked confusing, the ground support system can reload MAFFS with retardant mixture in less than eight minutes.

One of the advantages of the recently operational MAFFS 2 system is its onboard compressors, which remove the need to recompress air tanks from ground systems, said officials.

Walno said the idea of a military unit being used in support of firefighting missions was conceived in 1970, but an operational system didn't get to the units until five years later. "There's military and as many other agencies now, and it's a growing entity, growing faster and faster as we speak," he said.

"Most interesting for us is the structure of the firefighting services here, and the interaction between the civil and military fire services," said Col. Vladimir Bekker, deputy director of Kazakhstan's firefighting service, who watched the training during a larger State Partnership Program tour with the Arizona National Guard.

About 75 civilian personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Bureau of Land Management supported the training event and recertification this week.