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Preparing for wildfires: Military crews in Ventura County practicing airborne firefighting

A C-130 returns to Ventura County from an aerial firefighting training flight.
Lance Orozco
A C-130 returns to the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Ventura County from an aerial firefighting training flight.

Crews from throughout Western United States training on everything from preparing planes for missions to actually doing practice water drops.

A giant, lumbering military transport plane has just pulled onto the tarmac at the Channel Islands Air National Guard station. This plane flies all over the world on military support and humanitarian aid missions. But this week, the C-130 is taking part in training flights to prepare for high wildfire season.

"We have several different missions. We have the standard cargo lift. We do airdrop missions with paratroopers. We do a lot of humanitarian missions. One of those is the MAFFS mission. MAFFS means Modular Aerial Firefighting System," said Lt. Col. Jeremy McNally, who is a pilot with the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, based in Ventura County.

He said when there are major wildfires raging, they can use the modular systems in the plane’s cargo bay to convert the aircraft into air tankers.

"We open up the back door, and roll on the MAFFS module, and that MAFFS module can hold 3000 gallons of retardant. That's what we use to draw the lines around the fire, to contain the fire," said McNally.

"These are pressurized tanks that fit into the back of a C-130. They effectively retrofit a C-130 to become an air tanker for us," said Stanton Florea, who is with the U.S. Forest Service National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center helps manage the nation’s airborne firefighting efforts.

All this week, the Ventura County base has been hosting C-130 crews, and airborne firefighting support teams to prepare for high fire season.

It's Channel Islands (the 146th), which is us, and the 302nd Airlift Wing out of Colorado Springs," said Master Sergeant Nicholas Cardiz, who is with the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station. There are four aircraft participating this week. He said they are doing dozens of flights a day, with the practice water drops taking place in the Angeles National Forest.

Pilots like McNally admit airborne firefighting is more challenging than much of what they do on a regular basis.

"It's pretty incredible. You definitely get that adrenaline rush," said McNally. "You know that lives are on the line."

The Camarillo man said what they do really hit home in 2017, when the wildfires they were battling were in his backyard, in Ventura County.

They battled the Thomas and Hill Fires. Some of the ground crew members lost their homes.

The military planes are only used as a backup, if all other available firefighting aircraft are in use. It’s surge capacity, so to speak.

But, with some of the biggest wildfires in the state’s history in the last decade, the planes have been needed, and have supplied critical support.


Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.