With more than 500,000 acres ablaze across the Western United States, aerial firefighters from Colorado Springs have been hopping, with daily sorties from Southern California to Oregon.
There's been no respite for the crew from Peterson Air Force Base's 302nd Airlift Wing since it was called to take on flames in late July, said Lt. Col. Robert Fairbanks. But the wing's part-time airmen aren't dragging with the military duty that took them away from civilian jobs.
Fairbanks said they're inspired.
"It is an opportunity to use our training and our abilities to see an immediate impact and results," he said.
Fairbanks' crew is flying out of Fresno, Calif. with a C-130 packing the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, which has 3,000 gallons of retardant. They were called up in late July and joined Air Force units from Wyoming and Nevada on the firefighting mission.
The four-engine transport planes fly low and slow ahead of wildfires and spray a 100-foot-wide line of retardant that's up to 400 yards long. The retardant lines can halt a fire's advance, allowing crews on the ground a chance to halt the flames.
The missions require precision flying at the edge of what pilots call "the envelope." In this case, that means the slow speed of the flight, combined with the low-altitude of the missions, puts the crews close to the point where the C-130 goes from high-performance aircraft to 70-ton brick.
It's no big deal for Fairbanks, a squadron commander in the wing who has logged more than 7,000 hours in the cockpit.
"When we can put the retardant where they want it, we can stop the fire from spreading," he said.
That ability was on display last week, as airmen from the 302nd hemmed in a blaze just outside San Bernardino, Calif. The 100-acre fire exploded to life Monday and threatened to ignite subdivisions in the 200,000-resident city.
"We were dropping right in the foothills," Fairbanks said.
It was a race between fire crews and flames.
Fairbanks said the fire was raging right at the evening rush hour. In arid Southern California, there's little to slow a wildfire.
"Its amazing to see how quickly a fire can spread up into those hills," he said.
The C-130s flew over bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 15 on their way to the fire.
"We can see all the traffic - all the people coming home from work on a Monday afternoon," he said.
Fairbanks said the traffic tangle showed his crew for whom they were fighting.
Thanks to the plane from Colorado Springs and the efforts of firefighters on the ground, the fire was held to 100 acres. No homes burned.
But there's little time to savor the victory in San Bernardino. Severe drought has turned Southern California into a Disneyland for flames. Small smoke plumes seen from the air can quickly develop into infernos.
"We're seeing a lot of starts," Fairbanks said.
That means little rest for the 302nd airmen.
"We've been flying every day since we got here," he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240