Colorado Springs airmen battle western wildfires from air

August 9, 2013 Updated: August 10, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Airmen from Peterson Air Force Base's 302nd Airlift Wing returned to fighting fire this week, dousing flames in Idaho and eastern Oregon.

It's been a busy year for the reservists, who started their airborne firefighting duties in June close to home when they dropped retardant to slow the advance of the Black Forest fire.

Two of their C-130 firefighting planes and a contingent of flight crews and maintenance teams are working from an airport in Boise, Idaho, to battle fires through that region.

"They launched this morning on a fire north of Twin Falls," Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, who oversees aerial firefighting for the wing, said Friday.

While a soggy July calmed the wildfire season in Colorado, much of the west remains tinder dry.

Crews from the 302nd in recent days have dropped retardant ahead of fast-moving brush fires that were racing through acres. The aircraft were able to stop the fires cold.

"You can make a lot of progress," Thompson said.

Fighting fires requires airmen to fly the 75-ton, four-engine transport planes at low altitude and just above stall speed. They follow a smaller guide plane to make precise drops. The retardant makes a barrier 60 feet wide and a quarter-mile long.

Small mistakes can be deadly, as shown by the fatal crash of a C-130 firefighting plane in South Dakota last year.

"Most people don't realize that firefighting is a dynamic environment performance-wise with the aircraft," Thompson said.

The wing this summer is doing more than fighting fire. Airmen from two squadrons in the 302nd are flying missions in Afghanistan and the Middle East during a four-month deployment that started in May.

Thompson said overseas commitments can stretch the wing's supply of part-time airmen, who leave civilian jobs for air force duty. But so far, there has been an ample supply of volunteers for firefighting, he said.

"We've always been able to support the mission," Thompson said.

The Colorado Springs crews will stay in Boise for a month to help battle flames. In September, they'll be replaced by crews from another wing.

But, with an unpredictable late fire season, airmen from the 302nd could stay busy well into the fall.

"That's the million-dollar question: How widespread will it be and how long will it go on?" Thompson said.

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