As drought threatens the western United States, troops in Colorado Springs have spent the week getting ready to battle wildfires from the air.
Peterson Air Force Base’s 302nd Airlift Wing uses 40-ton C-130 transport planes to drop retardant to slow the advance of flames. The annual training this year included social distancing and none of the interaction with other units training for the same work because of coronavirus.
“We are starting our normal aerial firefighting training, but it is not in the normal way we do our training,” said the wing’s commander, Col. Jim DeVere.
The 302nd, a reserve unit of part-time troops, usually sends crews to Idaho for the training, which is led by the U.S. Forest Service.
Instead, in the coronavirus era, they are flying their lumbering planes above the mountains near Pikes Peak for a homegrown version of the lessons. The reason they have carried on with the lessons despite the coronavirus: high fire danger through the West.
“This pandemic will not slow wildland fire,” DeVere said.
So the 302nd transports have roared over the city as they simulate attacks on advancing flames.
To accurately drop retardant, the C-130s flown by the 302nd come in a treetop level and, just above, stall speed before the crew open the nozzle to spray out as much as 3,000 gallons of retardant slurry. That can create a 100-foot-wide fire barrier that’s 400 yards long.
Lt. Col. Brad Ross, who is in charge of the wing’s aerial firefighting program, said crews start with ground school, studying the theories behind aerial firefighting before they try them out in the sky.
It’s a different kind of flying for the C-130s, which must graze past steep mountain slopes and follow the terrain closely on firefighting missions.
The wing has flown missions against fires as far away as Israel and as close as just west of Garden of the Gods, where the wing’s C-130s helped wrestle the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire.
Ross said he doesn’t follow fire predictions, but he’s ready for a wild season.
“I do know we do need to be ready to help out when we are called,” he said.
The airmen are called in to fight fires when civilian resources are overburdened.
Drought conditions have lingered through parts of the western U.S. through the winter, and El Paso County and other parts of southeastern Colorado are facing abnormally dry conditions this spring.
The Forest Service warned in its most recent forecast that parts of Colorado could see an early start to a long fire season.
Since Jan. 1, wildfires have blackened 218,000 acres across the U.S. with large fires Tuesday in Texas and Florida, according to the Forest Service’s National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The 302nd has two planes dedicated to the fire mission with about 60 crew members assigned.
The difficulty of the mission and its importance don’t scare off the wing’s airmen, which has no shortage of volunteers.
Ross said that while the training this week is nontraditional, it will do the job.
“We’ll be ready to go to work this summer if we are needed,” he said.
And while there’s drought in the West, there is reason to hope the U.S. could face an easier wildfire season than it has seen in recent years.
The optimism is driven by the fact that the worst wildfires are generally those caused by man. But, with coronavirus, fewer people are venturing deep into the western wilds, meaning there are fewer campfires to go out of control and other man-made calamities.
DeVere isn’t confident that coronavirus alone will fix the nation’s wildfire worries. Instead, he’s hoping residents in El Paso County and other jurisdictions will follow regulations designed to ease fires this year.
Here, most outdoor burning is banned.
“I know there is a fire restriction going on, and any way we can get that information out would be great,” DeVere said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx