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Colo. Springs bases respond to Waldo Canyon fire
A Siller Brothers firefighting helicopter takes off from the Air Force Academy airfield to fight the Waldo Canyon fire June 25, 2012. The Academy canceled its normal flying operations June 23 to facilitate helicopter operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)
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Colo. Springs bases enter fight vs. Waldo Canyon fire

Posted 6/26/2012   Updated 6/26/2012 Email story   Print story


by Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

6/26/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- When Colorado Springs, Colo., called for aid in fighting the quickly spreading Waldo Canyon fire, which started Saturday and grew to nearly 3,500 acres by Monday, the Defense Department answered in strength, deploying multiple aircraft and opening its flightlines for firefighting operations.

The Air Force Academy made its airfield available for helicopter operations Saturday, ceasing normal cadet flying training, while the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base and the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing each contributed two C-130 Hercules carrying Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems on Monday.

"Our number one goal is to take care of citizens in their time of need," said Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov, the deputy director of operations for U.S. Northern Command, during a press conference at Peterson AFB on Monday. "We have eight tankers like these in the country, and half of them will be brought to bear on this fire."

Jerry Miranda, the chief of airfield management for the 306th Flying Training Group, got a phone call from the 10th Air Base Wing Command Post on Saturday to let him know that the Bureau of Land Management wanted to use the airfield as a staging area.

"We have five helicopters constantly coming in now," Miranda said. "We're preparing to receive up to 25 helicopters.

Officials with the 306th FTG canceled the Academy's normal flying operations and set up a command center to coordinate the helicopter flights. They also set up makeshift sleeping quarters with help from the 10th Mission Support Group.

"We have shower facilities here," Miranda said. "They gave us the mats and the towels. We had people sleeping here Saturday and Sunday because they had nowhere else to go -- all the hotels in town were full."

Land Management officials began working with the Academy to set up a staging area here after a fire in Beaver Creek burned about 100 acres along the Front Range in August 2011, Miranda said. The staging area sits due west of the scenic overlook on Interstate 25 at Mile Marker 151. The helicopters are sorted by weight, with the lightest aircraft on the south and the heaviest ones on the north.

Each of the helicopters there has its own equipment and personnel. Officials with the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management oversee their operations, Miranda said.

"Everyone here has been very nice, very accommodating," said Justin Jager, a helicopter crew supervisor with the Bureau of Land Management. "This area serves our purposes perfectly. It's the best area around for what we want to do."

Miranda said he appreciates what the Forest Service officials are doing and how the 10th ABW has offered its support.

"Col. Tim Gibson and the 10th ABW were on it like you wouldn't believe," he added.

On Monday, C-130s began flying out of Peterson Air Force Base and Pueblo Memorial Airport. Each C-130 can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, which helps impede a fire's spread, said Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, the 302nd AW's chief of aerial firefighting. MAFFS-equipped C-130s fly "low and slow," descending to just 150 feet above ground level to drop retardant ahead of likely burn areas.

"We finished training in April in the exact same place (Peterson AFB) to prepare for the same scenario," Thompson said.

"We're not going to put it out," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the 731st Airlift Squadron commander. "Our job is to support the firefighters on the ground. We're not the experts -- we're relying on interagency partnerships to know where to go, how to get there and what to do when we get there.

"One important difference is the time. In April, we knew when we were going to hold the exercise," Condit continued. "With this, we had to call people in the middle of the night to come up to the base and get set up. They had to call their employers and cancel their vacation plans ... but a lot of folks volunteered. Almost as soon as that first plume of smoke went up, my phone started ringing off the hook with reservists saying, 'If they call us up, call me.'"

Terry McCann, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, said Forest Service officials were "excited" to have MAFFS capability. He explained the decision-making process behind activating the C-130s.

"The request has to be made first, and the requirement for activating MAFFS is that commercial and contracted air tankers have to be completely in use or otherwise unavailable," McCann explained. The request goes to the regional dispatch center, which in this case is the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. From there, it goes to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. A multi-agency command reviews national availability of firefighting resources: if no other resources are available, it authorizes the MAFFS request.

McCann cautioned against too much optimism, however, noting that MAFFS, while significant, is just one tool in the toolbox.

"The bottom line is, when you get containment, it's from the people on the ground," he said.

The Waldo Canyon fire was 5-percent contained as of Monday afternoon. It is not expected to affect Class of 2016 inprocessing, which is scheduled to begin Thursday. Trails on the west side of the Academy are closed, but the New Santa Fe and Falcon trails are still open. The Farish Recreation Area and all roads leading to Farish are closed. Off base, U.S. Highway 24 is closed in both directions between Manitou Springs and Woodland Park.

The C-130s will also help fight the High Park fire in northern Colorado, which at more than 83,000 acres is the second-largest fire in Colorado history. The largest was the Hayman fire, at more than 138,000 acres burned. However, the High Park fire is the most destructive fire in state history, having burned nearly 250 homes compared to 133 that were destroyed in the Hayman fire. In addition to High Park and Waldo Canyon, firefighters are battling eight other fires throughout the state.

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