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Wyo., NC Air National Guard crews practice using specially fitted C-130s to fight wildfires

Two Air National Guard units that fly C-130 cargo planes against wildfires are taking part in annual training this week under new standards and procedures adopted since one of the specially equipped planes crashed last year.

The changes include reassessing fire and weather conditions throughout the day and not primarily before the first flights each morning.

"We're more focused on taking the time that's necessary to analyze each scenario," Maj. Jeremy Schaad, with the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing, said Tuesday. "The conditions that exist throughout the day, they change."

The North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing joined Wyoming's 153rd in this week's training flights over drop areas in southeastern Wyoming and northern Colorado. Each unit flew two planes, and a third Wyoming plane was on standby, ready to fly in case of a technical problem with any of the others.

The firefighting C-130 that crashed July 1 in the Black Hills belonged to the North Carolina unit. The crash killed four crew members and injured two others.

Investigators concluded that the crew misjudged conditions and flew into a microburst that slammed the plane into the ground. A microburst is a downward gust from a thunderstorm that can cause a plane to lose lift.

The plane's number, 7, which was painted in bright orange on the fuselage and tail, has been retired in honor of the crew.

A total of eight C-130s from four military units in four states are equipped with a large device called the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS. The U.S. Forest Service owns the MAFFS and coordinates their use with the military.

The devices are rolled into the cargo planes through the rear door and can deploy up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water at a time.

Typically, the MAFFS-equipped C-130s get called into action only after all privately owned air tankers contracted by the Forest Service are fighting fires, but two of the planes already have seen action this year. On Friday, California Gov. Jerry Brown exercised his authority to call up the planes from the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing to fight fires north of Los Angeles.

For this week's training, planes took off from the Wyoming Air National Guard headquarters at the Cheyenne airport. They followed lead planes to drop zones near Red Feather Lakes in the northern Colorado high country and to the Laramie Peak area in the Laramie Range of southeast Wyoming.

A third drop zone was at Camp Guernsey about 80 miles north of Cheyenne.

"That area helps us with our flatland drops," Schaad explained. "Every now and then flatland fires occur, so we train for that as well here."

The planes were loaded with water, not fire retardant as would be typical for a Rocky Mountain wildfire. A line of retardant dropped ahead of a fire can slow the flames, buying time for firefighters to move in on the ground.

Areas of focus for training include flying in formation and following instructions from the lead planes on where and how much water to drop, Schaad said.

Along with assessing weather and fire conditions more frequently, the MAFFS units are standardizing procedures between units. The goal is to improve coordination when different units are deployed together to fight fires.

The standardization includes a consistent amount of required training time for pilots and crew members to earn MAFFS certification.

"Prior to this past year, there was no written direction on a certain number of hours or how to quantify the experience level on how to become a MAFFS crew member," said Lt. Col. Brian Ratchford, MAFFS commander for the 145th.

On Tuesday, the planes made a handful of runs until a midmorning thunderstorm dumped heavy rain and hail on the Cheyenne area. It was yet more moisture for a region that until last month had been under the threat of another severe wildfire season like last year's, which spawned several deadly and destructive fires.

The other two MAFFS-equipped C-130s belong to the Colorado Air Force Reserve Command's 302nd Airlift Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base at Colorado Springs.

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