How the Air Force helps save homes and fight wildfires
Staff Sgt. Timothy Dawson was trying to get some rest before work the next day. The phone rang twice before he answered it. His neighbor, who lives just above his apartment complex on the hill, told him the fire was really close and they were evacuating.
That neighbor was 1st Lt. Mike Constable, a pilot with the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, California. Dawson said he could see Constable and his roommates packing things into their cars.
The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4, 2017 in Santa Paula, near Thomas Aquinas College. Driven by Santa Ana winds gusting up to 70 mph, the flames screamed across the hillsides toward Ojai and Ventura. Numerous fires leapfrogged across Ventura and Los Angeles Counties the following day.
Dawson's three-level, 52-unit apartment complex burned to the ground a few hours later.
Ironically, Dawson is a C-130J Hercules crew chief for the 146th AW, one of five wings in the Air Force equipped with the module airborne firefighting system, or MAFFS. This system is loaded onto C-130s and is designed to fight the very thing that took his home, wildfires.
The 146th AW was activated Dec. 5 to fight what became the largest California wildfire by size in the state's recorded history, covering 281,893 acres. The Thomas Fire is now 100 percent contained.
"We got the word and everybody sprung into action. Our maintenance folk got the airplane ready for us, our aerial port guys went and got the MAFFS units pulled out and loadmasters got the airplanes ready. It was really a well-oiled machine on that day. We got things done really quickly," said Senior Master Sgt. Phil Poulsen, a loadmaster with the 146th AW.
Most of the Airmen stationed at Channel Islands ANGS are from Ventura County or the surrounding area. Approximately 50 people from the 146th AW evacuated their homes during the fire and five Airmen lost their homes.
"I can see the smoke from my house and we know people who live there," Poulson said. "My daughter went to daycare up there and I think I flew over that house. I think it's gone. So it really hits close to home when you are this close to home."
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, requested MAFFS aircraft and personnel support through the state's governor and the Adjutant General of the state's National Guard. Once activated, CAL FIRE incident commanders assigned to the Thomas Fire, and based at the Ventura Fairgrounds, generate the launch orders for the MAFFS. The aircraft sit ready at Tanker Base Operations, a few miles south of the fairgrounds at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station.
Once requested, the C-130s would join the fight at a designated altitude in the protected flight area, typically 1,500 feet above ground. An aerial supervisor, or air attack, would fly at about 2,000 feet, directing and controlling the aircraft. Lead planes, at 1,000 feet, guide the tankers to their drop points, approximately 150 feet above the ground.
"Once we enter the fire traffic area, we join on the lead plane. He'll typically give us a show me [puff of smoke] which shows us where he's intending us to drop," said Lt. Col. Scott Pemberton, a C-130J pilot with the 146th AW. "We try to be very precise with that because you know it's a high value asset and you get one shot at it."
The mission requires the crews to fly the C-130s very close to the fires.
"You're taking the fight directly to the ground," Pemberton said. "We are 150 feet above the ground at 120 knots, at the edge of the airplane's envelope. You're demanding a lot of yourself and your fellow crewmembers. So that's why you are typically very highly trained and are very prepared to do this mission."
The MAFFS can hold 3,000 gallons of retardant, which is released from a nozzle placed in the left rear troop door of the aircraft. It takes approximately 15 minutes to load retardant into the MAFFS, another 15 minutes to reach the Thomas Fire, 10 more to join the lead plane and drop and then another 15 minutes to return to base. With 10 hours of daylight and two planes, the 146th AW drops an average of 60,000 gallons of retardant each day.
"Many times if you are close to a fire line and you're doing direct attack you'll see the guys standing down there," Pemberton said. "On the second, third or fourth drop you'll come by and you will see that you have gotten close enough to where they are a different color. But I've also seen the whites of their eyes where they're diving behind their bulldozer because you're that close, and they know that the retardant is coming."
Still, the dangers of this mission are not lost on Pemberton.
On July 1, 2012, MAFFS 7, which belonged to the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing based at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, crashed while fighting the White Draw Fire in South Dakota's Black Hills. Four of the six crewmembers aboard died.
"There was a thunderstorm approaching from the north and as they were waiting for the lead to coordinate and get his bearings… The thunderstorm moved closer and closer," Pemberton said. "They made a first run and I think they got off half of their retardant."
As they made their second run, they had a wind shear event and a microburst took away their lift and forced them to fly straight ahead into the terrain.
"As a result of that incident, we completely changed our training. We incorporated a lot of the wind shear escape maneuvers, and we built new seats for the loadmasters in the back and made crashworthy seats for those crewmembers," Pemberton said.
This training and the 146th AW's capabilities benefit everyone involved in the wildfire fighting community, too.
The 146th AW plays a big role in extinguishing fires, said Tenner Renz a dozer swamper with the Kern County Fire Department, but it's something he sees on almost every fire. Whether a 100-acre or a 250,000-acre fire, the guard shows up.
"Some of these guys are crazy. I mean dipping down into some of these canyons, flying through smoke, buzzing treetops," Renz said. "They have a talent that most people don't have."
Having the MAFFS capability means the 146th AW can be federally activated to support firefighting operations around the United States by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. An Air Force liaison group, led on a rotating basis by one of the five MAFFS unit commanders, staffs the center.
This wide-ranging operational experience and capability gives CAL FIRE an extra capability when things are at their worst.
"We currently have low humidity, Santa Ana winds, we haven't had rain in a number of days and we're in areas that haven't burned in 50-60 years," said Dan Sendek, MAFFS liaison officer for CAL FIRE. "You can never have enough equipment for every eventuality. What the guard brings to us is that surge capacity when we're in a situation where we need everything we can get."
Six days after he lost his home, Dawson was back at work.
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"The routine of going about the mission and getting things done is probably better," Dawson said. "I needed to get back and get involved in the fire mission. The show must go on. The world doesn't stop spinning and the guard doesn't stop flying missions."
For Dawson, it's also a chance to combat the fire that took his home and save some of his neighbor's property.
Dawson and his wife were able to return to their apartment a few days after the fire destroyed it, however, they were not able to search for personal items because the fire was still smoldering.
"Every single tenant in the 52 units was able to get out ahead of the fire. When we went back for the first time it was it was pretty emotionally taxing," he said. "There were two stories worth of apartments that collapsed into a carport. There's nothing left that we could really find.
"To me, then and even now, it still feels a little surreal. I know it's happening to me, but it feels like it's happening to someone else."