Story by Master Sgt. Nicholas Carzis
KLAMATH FALLS AIRTANKER BASE, OR – First Air Force (Air Forces Northern), U.S. Northern Command’s Air Component Command, has deployed Department of Defense (DoD) aerial firefighting assets to the Northwest region of the United States that include two wings
from the U.S. Air Force’s Reserve and Air National Guard.
Performing under the guidance and request of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as well as other federal and state wildfire prevention agencies, the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing (302 AW) the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing (153 AW), and the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing are providing a valuable surge capacity out of Klamath Falls Airtanker Base in Oregon.
This surge capability is delivered via the NIFC, which requested the DoD’s support in assisting wildfire containment operations via U.S. Northern Commands Air Component Command.
Aerial firefighting assets arrived in Klamath Falls in early August. Since then, the 153 AW and the 302 AW has accomplished 41 sorties (flying missions), dropping over 107 thousand gallons of retardant on the Wiley, Jerry Ridge, Gray fires, and many others when requested.
NIFC is currently reporting significant wildland fire activity within the United States with the potential for increased fire activity through the Great Basin, Northwest, and the Northern Rockies due to extremely dry conditions fueling the wildfires. Amid the trepidation for additional potential wildfires, the activation of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) program, a firefighting program founded on time-tested wildfire
suppression ventures is an added exemplary resource directly inserted between the public and the path of the wildfires.
The MAFFS program is composed of aviation and wildfire prevention professionals across the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service, the Air Force’s Reserve and Air National Guard components, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and from wildfire prevention agencies such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to include wildfire suppression ground forces.
The MAFFS system is the U.S. Forest Service’s portable fire-retardant delivery system, and it can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft without major structural modifications to convert them into airtankers when needed. MAFFS can discharge their entire load of up to 3,000 gallons
of retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide, or they can make variable drops. Once a load is discharged from a MAFFS-equipped aircraft and the aircraft lands at a tanker base, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.
The U.S. Forest Service owns the MAFFS equipment and supplies the fire retardant, while the DoD provides the C-130 H and J model aircraft, flight crews, and maintenance and support personnel to fly the missions.
2023 marks the Semicentennial anniversary recognizing the heritage of the steadfast partnership between the Department of Defense and the U.S. Forest Service.
For 50 years, the MAFFS program has aided with the extinguishing of some of the United States’ most deadly wildfires in the nation’s history. Presently at Klamath Falls Airtanker Base, MAFFS personnel are bracing for another busy season as the National Preparedness Level was recently elevated to level 4.
Established by the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group (NMAC), composed of wildland fire representatives from each wildland fire agency based at the NIFC, the National Preparedness Level establishes preparedness levels throughout the calendar year to ensure suppression
resource availability for emerging incidents across the country.
With the movement of MAFFS assets to Klamath Falls Airtanker Base, the U.S. Forest Service ensures aerial wildfire assets can provide the surge capability to match the current National Preparedness Levels. One piece of the critical personnel assisting in managing these assets at Klamath Falls Airtanker Base is Scott Headrick, a Forest Aviation Officer and current MAFFS Airtanker Base Manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
Headrick, who manages all MAFFS mission related at Klamath Falls has been a part of the MAFFS program for 5 years during his 16 years of service with the U.S. Forest Service.
Headrick says the shared dedication among the inter-agency’s personnel is vital to the program’s success.
“The readiness to respond and the shared dedication among all interagency partners during an activation is a testament to the [MAFFS] program. The people working with the MAFFS program are why many of our inter-agency partners and aviation professionals come back year after year to build and make this program successful,” said Headrick.
While many MAFFS veterans return to participate in future activations for years, the continued growth and survival of the mission also depend on the influx of new personnel. People like Airman 1st Class Aston Valois, a crew chief assigned to the 153rd Maintenance Squadron and on his first-ever MAFFS activation, says he’s excited for the opportunity to leverage his skills to a mission with such a noticeable and direct impact stateside.
“I’m excited to be here and be a part of such a noble mission like MAFFS. I am learning a lot about the mission, and the work is definitely a faster change of pace, but the work is very rewarding,” said Valois.
As a young crew chief, Valois is still learning the ins and outs regarding the numerous responsibilities of a crew chief for MAFFS. Valois and other crew chiefs are responsible for the overall functionality of the C-130H aircraft, and he’s entrusted with ensuring the MAFFS aircraft remain in working order.
Crew chiefs working on MAFFS aircraft during activations often work overtime to ensure the C-130 aircraft are ready to perform, and this is also true for many personnel working out on the ramp where aircraft are launched, re-fueled, pressurized, and then loaded with fire retardant.
More often than not, those performing these actions are in less than favorable conditions like extreme heat temperatures and harsh winds.
Valois says serving on the MAFFS mission has such an evident and direct impact that it outweighs anything he experiences in the line of duty.
“One more [MAFFS] plane going up hopefully means one more opportunity to save a home from burning, protect firefighters, or help contain a wildfire. I think it’s pretty cool that we’re trusted with this mission, and we’ve proven to keep up with the expectations. I know this program has
been around for a while, and it’s an honor to be a part of something that has a direct impact as big as MAFFS,” said Valois.
There will always be a level of uncertainty regarding how severe a fire season will be, but one constant assurance will be that the men and women of the MAFFS program will be ready to serve wherever and whenever called upon.