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Colorado Springs airmen ready for wildfire battle

July 25, 2014 Updated: July 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm
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A C-130 with the 302nd Airlift Wing performs a demonstration drop in this 2012 file photo. The wing is ready to respond with on 48 hours notice.

Airmen from the 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs are ready to be called to battle against wildfires raging in the Pacific Northwest as troops from U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base coordinate military efforts to fight the blazes.

Lt. Col. Luke Thompson with the 302nd said airmen are ready to go on 48 hours notice to take the wings firefighting planes to the Northwest. The high-level of alert comes as federal firefighting agencies call for Defense Department help to contain fires, including those that have blackened 900,000 acres in Oregon and Washington.

"We are not activated, we are ready to go," Thompson said.

The Peterson wing flies two of the eight military C-130 transport planes nationwide equipped to drop retardant to slow the advance of wildfires. The 302nd's planes played a key role in battling the 2012 Waldo Canyon and 2013 Black Forest fires that hit the Pikes Peak region.

Federal fire authorities have called up a pair of four-engined C-130s from the Wyoming National Guard and could need more help from the air soon, said Steve Gage, the assistant operations director with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The big fires have tapped out civilian aerial firefighting resources, and even bringing in aircraft from Alaska and Canada didn't meet the need, he said.

"We like to think of our Department of Defense partners as the surge capacity," Gage said.

Calling for military help means calling Northern Command in Colorado Springs, which coordinates Defense Department assistance to civilian authorities on top of its duty to defend the continent from attack.

"Northern Command and the Department of Defense stand ready to assist our interagency partners," said Navy Cmdr. John Kurtz, who was helping oversee fire efforts from the command's operations center deep underneath a Peterson Air Force Base building.

Northern Command has focused on battling western wildfires this year after two years of battling flames within miles of its headquarters. That focus included a series of planning meetings ahead of the fire season and a series of training exercises for units that could be called.

While planes from Colorado Springs aren't in the fight yet, Air Force aerial firefighters have played a big role in the last day.

Over 24 hours, the planes made 16 air drops against fires in eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho, putting nearly 40,000 gallons of fire retardant on target.

Colorado has had a relatively calm wildfire season to date, but flames have raged this week at the state's northwestern tip where the Moffat County Alkali fire has consumed 20,000 acres.

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