146th Airlift Wing Provides Aerial Firefighting, Search and Rescue Support Amid California Wildfires

This photo shows the Woosley Fire as seen from the cockpit of a MAFFS-equipped C-130J assigned to the 146th Airlift Wing. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Wright.

California Air National Guardsmen from the Channel Islands-based 146th Airlift Wing are assisting with aerial firefighting and search and rescue as wildfires continue to ravage the state.

Approximately 50 airmen from the wing were activated Nov. 10 along with two C-130Js equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (also known as MAFFS) “to support the CAL FIRE MAFFS mission,” California Air National Guard Maj. Kimberly Holman told Air Force Magazine in an email Thursday.

The US Forest Service defines MAFFS as “portable fire retardant delivery systems that can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft without major structural modifications to convert them into airtankers when needed.”

“The MAFFS program… is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service” and the Defense Department, its website goes onto explain, with the systems and retardant technically belonging to the Forest Service, and “the C-130 H and J model aircraft, flight crews, and maintenance and support personnel to fly the missions” coming from DOD.

Though the fire fighting systems were operational Nov. 11, “high winds and visibility issues” made flying impossible until Nov. 13, Holman said. Despite the delay, the airmen and aircraft managed to release 9,000 gallons of fire retardant over the course of three drops that day, and 3,000 more gallons in a Nov. 14 drop.

As of Nov. 15, the 146th AW had only dropped retardant on the Woolsey Fire, she said, though they “could be diverted to any fire in California at any time.”

The Woolsey Fire caused two deaths, injured three firefighters, “burned almost 100,000 acres,” obliterated 435 structures, and endangered 57,000 more, according to a Nov. 15 video update that the wing published on its Facebook page.

SSgt. Nicole Wright, a public affairs journalist with the 146th AW and the video’s narrator, said the wing was “at about 47 percent containment” at the time of filming, and cited optimistic weather forecasts and “hopes of rain around Thanksgiving time.”

The wing also sent a 10-man Fatality Search and Rescue Team to Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 14, Holman said, noting that authorities predict that deaths from the Camp Fire “may climb to over 100.”

According to Holman, this wildfire-related work hits especially close to home for the wing, with 41 of its airmen being “directly affected by the fires due to evacuations.”