USNORTHCOM prepares for 2012 wildfire season

By Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher | NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs | May 01, 2012

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - U.S. Northern Command is preparing for what could be a busy wildfire season.

USNORTHCOM provides resources in support of the National Interagency Fire Center to respond to wildfires in the continental U.S., U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Alaska upon request as a surge capability.

Military authority for the MAFFS program was created in the early 1970's to support wildland firefighting through an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. Today, the military aircraft are requested by the National Interagency Fire Center (and activated through U.S. Northern Command) based on a formal agreement with the Department of Defense.

“The NORAD and USNORTHCOM Command Center, Current Operations Support Division and Future Operations Division work together to ensure that the training gets done,” said Steve Fogler, USNORTHCOM Civil Support Office Air Planner. “Lt. Col. [David] Condit, director of the Air Force Reserve Command’s aerial firefighting program, briefed each of the command center’s five crews to prepare them to understand and respond to Requests for Assistance from NIFC.”

Four Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems recently concluded their annual certification training, while MAFFS commanders conducted briefings for the NORAD and USNORTHCOM Command Center personnel on what they can expect during a MAFFS operation.

In addition to C-130-capable MAFFS aircraft stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., three additional units operate the aircraft systems from California, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Also in advance of the anticipated wildland firefighting season, an Air Expeditionary Group under the command and control of Air Forces Northern, the Air Force component of USNORTHCOM responsible for coordinating MAFFS missions, has been stood up and will remain active until the end of the 2012 fire season.

“The AEG, as part of that coordinating element between USNORTHCOM and the Reserve and Guard MAFFS units, has established a relationship between those units and USNORTHCOM and exercised the command and control authorities and reporting procedures needed to maintain visibility on each of those units, so they’re all talking to each other,” Fogler explained.

The four individual MAFFS units that work with that AEG have concluded their annual NIFC MAFFS certification. The 302nd Airlift Wing’s certification training in Colorado included dropping potable water during practice runs over sections of the Pike San Isabel National Forest. In total, the training consisted of 12 hours of classroom instruction and 35 training flights. MAFFS crews flew in coordination with U.S. Forest Service aircraft, which act as spotters, leading the larger C-130 aircraft on their approaches and marking with smoke where they want the MAFFS aircraft to drop water or slurry.

Condit said coordination between the Air Force units and the U.S. Forest Service is essential to the mission and is one of the essential elements that must be practiced. In the event of an RFA from NIFC, MAFFS units are supposed to be able to respond within 48 hours, but Condit said if necessary they can beat that time.

“To put that in perspective, our wartime response, if we had an all-out war break out, we have 72 hours to respond,” Condit said. “The reality is they’ll often ask us to get there as soon as we can, and we can normally meet that expectation.”

Anticipating where USNORTHCOM units will participate can be challenging. MAFFS units can only deploy upon request and can only operate in coordination with other firefighting units.

“We’re not self-tasking,” Maj. Ryan Tanton, 731st Airlift Squadron C-130 navigator, explained. “If we see a fire out at Fort Carson, for example, we can’t just load up with water and go try to fight the fire on our own.”

Fogler likened the need for coordination to providing air support for troops, noting that MAFFS aircraft can’t drop water or retardant without knowing where firefighters are on the ground.

“Safety for the fire fighters on the ground is paramount,” he said. “It reminds me of close air support for our (warfighting) troops. The fighters don’t drop without knowing where the friendlies are and they must work closely with a ground controller. The MAFFS don’t drop without direction from the ground incident commander and they follow a lead spotter plane across the drop area. They need to have full coordination with the firefighters on the ground before they can drop water or retardant. That way we get the most accurate drops with the highest degree of safety for the ground crews."

Since the program was created some 40 years ago, the role of DoD MAFFS has been to provide a “surge” capability that can be used to boost NIFC’s wildfire suppression efforts when commercial airtankers are fully committed or not readily available. Other criteria used for requesting DoD MAFFS-capable assets relate to national and geographic area preparedness levels; the amount of ongoing and anticipated initial attack activity; and availability of other aviation assets, including single engine airtankers and heavy and medium helicopters.

“Although it looks like the MAFFS aircraft are not being used when they are sitting on the ramp, they have not been forgotten,” Fogler said. “If people see a plane on the ramp, and there’s a fire going on, be patient,” Fogler asked. “It’s part of a larger strategy.”

Fogler said the training MAFFS units receive allows the USNORTHCOM commander to balance his need to anticipate providing forces to support NIFC against the RFA process that must be accomplished first before any of the four MAFFS-capable units can respond to a call from NIFC.

“The MAFFS units meet the expectations of the (NORTHCOM) commander and the NIFC response timelines because those aircraft are identified and the equipment can be loaded and readied for use quickly,” Fogler said.

“The (four) crews have recently completed their annual certification training to fly MAFFS aircraft and perform that mission, as dangerous as it is. They are fully qualified right now. The planes are ready, the equipment is ready, the crews are ready; when requested, they can get airborne in minimum time. It’s a delicate process that’s well-coordinated. It’s 40 years old and very mature.

“We are prepared to do all we can. We’re as ready as we can be,” Fogler said.

By this time last year, MAFFS units were already fighting fires in Mexico and Texas and were activated three more times before the end of the 2011 fire season.