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WALDO CANYON FIRE: C-130 pilots begin 'personal' battle against blaze

JAKOB RODGERS Updated: June 25, 2012 at 12:00 am

Propellers roared to life. Airmen bustled about the tarmac in 93-degree heat. Aircraft loading doors slowly closed shut.

Maj. Bo Shelton could only grin.

After a day of preparation and restless waiting, airmen from Colorado Springs flew just miles west of their homes on Monday, dropping retardant from C-130 aircraft in a desperate bid to contain the Waldo Canyon fire.

Their first target: Flames near the Farish Recreation Area and Rampart Reservoir. The tankers flew low — about 150 feet above the fire — leaving a stream of orange slurry in their wake.

The force of four aircraft amounted of half of the military’s fleet of firefighting tankers — a move indicative of Colorado’s tinder-laden landscape. Officials planned to share the planes with firefighters battling the High Park fire in Fort Collins.

But any advances on the fire were made largely without the C-130s’ help. Three drops in total were made due to smoke that hampered visibility of the lead plane and rugged landscape.

Standing on the ramp at Peterson Air Force Base, Shelton was glad just to see those propellers spinning.

“It’s a good feeling,” Shelton said.

The wait was agonizing.

The first two planes to take off Monday — those marked with the numerals “2” and “5” — were from the 302nd Airlift Wing, a reserve unit at Peterson Air Force Base that is providing two of the four C-130s. The rest, featuring the numbers “1” and “3,” are from the 153rd Airlift Wing, a Wyoming Air National Guard unit.

The phone for Lt. Col. Dave Condit, with the 302nd Airlift Wing, began “ringing off the hook” after the first plume of smoke billowed from Waldo Canyon. The bulk of the calls came from reservists asking to be called up.

Shelton’s friends and neighbors started calling him as well, each asking when his C-130s would take to the skies.

“They just don’t understand that we’re a military unit, and they just can’t call us,” Shelton said. “It’s frustrating.”

Federal regulations state that the military’s C-130s can not be used to fight a fire unless all available civilian resources are tapped. Even then, the decision must go through several regional and national command centers before orders to dispatch the tankers are issued by U.S. Northern Command at Peterson.

Normally, the C-130s are used to haul cargo or troops in war zones. When called to fight fires, airmen roll a U.S. Forest Service-owned system into the plane’s back door, a process that takes as little as three and a half hours.

The system carries two to three times as much retardant per flight than the heaviest tankers so far on the Waldo Canyon fire. Until Monday, the heaviest tankers carried loads of 800 to 1,200 gallons.

Once above the Waldo Canyon fire, three of the C-130s spewed 2,700 gallons of orange fire retardant in less than 10 seconds, leaving three fire-resistant trails a quarter-mile long and 100 feet wide.

Master Sgt. Jeff Flight, a slurry system operator aboard C-130 number “5,” chuckled in disbelief at the past two weeks.

Flames from the Springer fire — a 1,145-acre blaze last week that scorched much of Elevenmile Canyon — edged to within two miles of his cabin. It was his first taste of fire so close to home — Peterson airmen typically fight blazes elsewhere, including Texas and Mexico in 2011.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Flight said. “My wife and I just kind of looked at each other and we were like ‘Let’s hope it goes the other way.’”

His helpless attitude changed Monday. Seconds before receiving his orders to board the airplane on Monday, he gazed at the smoke in the distance.

“It’s really surreal to see the fire right here in town,” Flight said. “It’s kind of personal, you know?”

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