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Crews train in Boise in case wildfires require military muscle

A military air tanker is flying in the sky.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
A military C-130 Hercules aircraft flies near Boise's airport, preparing to drop thousands of gallons of water as part of a firefighting training exercise.

The sun was shining in Boise on a recent Wednesday afternoon, but a field near the airport got a few thousand gallons of precipitation thanks to a massive C-130 Hercules air tanker.

This was part of a five-day training in late April for a special team of military personnel who will help fight wildfires if the Forest Service’s fleet of private contractors can’t meet the demand.

The team is called MAFFS, which stands for Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems.

Lt. Col. Varun Purohit is dressed in uniform, wearing sunglasses, and looking toward the camera while smiling. There is a parked plane in the background.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Lt. Col. Varun Purohit is a Wyoming Air National Guard pilot and a MAFFs commander in training.

“We fly C-130 aircraft that are DOD assets — Department of Defense C-130s — that we can fly anywhere in the world, do low-level flying, airdrop missions, just hauling things from point A to point B,” said Varun Purohit, a pilot and MAFFs commander in training.

Purohit said fighting wildfires isn’t the majority of his job, but the MAFFS teams have been increasingly used in the last few years. Forest Service and military personnel say that all eight MAFFS air tankers were deployed in 2020 and 2021. Last year was that group’s second busiest fire season in 49 years, including 96 days of military support for fighting fires.

This year is shaping up to be another extreme wildfire season, so having this backup may be especially helpful.

MAFFS teams train to fight fires every year in Boise, home of the National Interagency Fire Center, but crews fly in from all over. The eight MAFFs tankers are based in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Reno, Nev.; and near Oxnard, Calif.

Lt. Col. Purohit flew in from Cheyenne where he works with the Wyoming Air National Guard. He said wildfires are often the most difficult missions they fly.

“We're at high altitudes. It's very hot,” he said. “You're basically max-performing the aircraft. It is a challenge, but I think that's kind of what makes it unique and maybe appealing in some ways.”

The challenge includes dropping these massive planes low and flying slow through heavy smoke, mountainous terrain and sometimes heavy air traffic.

It's dangerous work. Last year, a pilot with a private company died after his tanker crashed at night while helping to fight the Kruger Rock Fire in northern Colorado. In 2012, two Idaho pilots died along the Utah-Nevada border fighting another large fire.

But when he thinks of the positives, Purohit said these missions allow him to see the direct effects of his work.

“We just dropped on the edge of the fire. That line held. We helped the guys on the ground do their job,” he said.

It’s not just pilots who came to train in Boise, though. There are also ground crews, and flight engineers like Chief Master Sgt. Cameron Pieters. He came up from Reno where he’s part of the Nevada Air National Guard. He said engineers like him monitor all kinds of systems and make sure checklists are completed.

A headshot of Cameron Pieters. He is dressed in uniform and looking toward the camera while smiling.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Chief Master Sgt. Cameron Pieters is a C-130 flight engineer with the Nevada Air National Guard.

“They're really the conscience of the crew. They bring adult supervision to the flight deck,” he said, smiling.

And for Pieters, wildfire fighting does have its challenges but has its intrigue, too.

“You may show up somewhere where the terrain is very rugged, where the smoke is very thick,” he said. “Exciting is probably not the word I'd use. I'd use spicy or sporty.”

This special MAFFs team is only called when there aren’t enough contractors for the Forest Service to tackle big wildfires. But if that happens, Pieters says this training will make sure they’re ready.

“This is where we get to knock off the cobwebs, knock off the dust and make sure that we're able to go out there and execute based on the level that the U.S. Forest Service needs us to do during fire season,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.
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