Federal officials have deployed two Air Force C-130 cargo planes equipped for firefighting to Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa to prepare for a dangerous fire season in Arizona.
The two replace eight planes based in Arizona of similar size that were grounded because of safety concerns, along with 25 others nationwide.
The C-130s in the eight-plane firefighting program run by the Air Force and the U.S. Forest Service have not been to Arizona in more than 12 years.
On Monday, two of the cargo planes in the program were ready to launch from the East Valley to anywhere in the Southwest, said Vincent Picard, spokesman for the Tonto National Forest. “Oftentimes we wonder if we're going to be deployed,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Russ McKeel, one of the C-130 pilots who will work at Williams Gateway in the coming weeks. “We're not wondering this year.”
The planes are part of a fleet of eight in the “Modular Airborne Firefighting System,” a program developed by the Air Force and the Forest Service in the 1970s.
The program, run chiefly by the 302nd Airlift Wing out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., is more important than ever with the other tankers grounded, officials said. Government officials canceled the contracts for the nation's 33 heavy air tankers this month in response to two fatal crashes in 2002. In those crashes, the wings of airplanes ripped off in midflight.
The number of smaller aircraft has been increased to help make up for the grounded planes, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Payne.
Arizona now has 15 single-engine tankers and 13 firefighting helicopters standing by, with many more available from other states if needed, Payne said. A fire retardant fill-up station is also being built in Payson for the smaller tankers, he said.
“We're having to get creative,” Payne said. “We're looking at different solutions.”
Fire officials said heavy air tankers are crucial for stopping small fires from getting bigger, as well as delivering maximum payloads in a large fire. The remaining six planes in the MAFFS program will be stationed this summer in Alaska, Idaho and other areas, officials said.
A crew of nearly 40 — all from Colorado — is required to operate and maintain the two four-engine propeller-driven airplanes. Crew members will work 12-hour days and sleep in a Mesa hotel, being replaced each week by others from the airlift wing. The planes and crews will leave the state when the fire season is over, usually after monsoon rain comes in July.