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Air Guard practices aerial firefighting
Wyoming Air National Guard personnel prepared the tail of a C-130 aircraft for a firefighting mission. National Guard photo

Air Guard practices aerial firefighting

Apr 19, 2012 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- Some of the gray Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 transport planes that loop around Cheyenne on frequent training flights are getting ready for plenty of firefighting action this summer and in the years ahead.

This week, Guard members sharpened their firefighting skills, flying between their base at the Cheyenne airport and a practice range 100 miles away. Planes roared just 150 feet above the rolling terrain of Camp Guernsey in southeast Wyoming to dump a few thousand gallons of water at a time on predetermined targets.

The four training flights a day on Monday through Wednesday, with a fourth day planned Thursday, helped to keep the pilots and crew credentialed for such barnstorming.

"The fires only burn when they burn and we can't control that, certainly. But with that unknown you want to know that folks are always ready to go at a moment's notice," said Maj. Jeremy Schaad, a C-130 pilot and Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System coordinator for the Wyoming Air National Guard 153rd Airlift Wing.

The water pumped onto the planes stood in for fire retardant that would be dropped during the real deal.

Fire season already is off to a busy start in the West. Two weeks ago, a wildfire southwest of Denver charred more than six square miles and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes. Three people were found dead.

With summer still more than two months away, the weather predictions aren't encouraging: Above average temperatures and below normal precipitation in the Rocky Mountain region.

"Of course, as the weather service guys would tell you, on the other hand it might rain all summer," Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said Wednesday. "But that's what we're looking for and gearing up for."

Abundant rain and snow over the past two years won't help any, either. The water encouraged the growth of now-flammable grass and underbrush.

Last summer, the 153rd Airlift Wing was mobilized three times, twice to fight fires in Texas and once to lend a hand in Idaho and Oregon. The unit has been involved in aerial firefighting since 1975 and has fought fires throughout the country and in Indonesia.

Nationwide, there are four MAFFS units that get called into action whenever the commercial tanker plane fleet contracted by the U.S. Forest Service is fully committed to firefighting or can't respond to a fire quickly enough.

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