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C-130 wildfire system lacks new parts, support

July 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
U.S. military C-130 cargo planes are a vital part of the nation's firefighting effort. But a critical component of the plane's equipment is made by only one company, and that company went out of business in August.

The demise of Sacramento-based Aero Union has some experts worried about the future viability of the program that has helped fight wildfires for 40 years. The component inside the C-130 is the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS), a bus-sized device that can be shoved into the belly of a cargo plane. It can spray 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in less than 5 seconds.

"If for some reason these C-130s with the MAFFS too don't really work as well as say the old P-3s or P-2s, which dropped the retardant in a different way, there could be an issue because you're not getting the coverage, you're not getting the response that you need to put out these wildfires," said Mike Archer, a wildfire consultant.

The MAFFS C-130s are operated by three National Guard and one reserve unit in Wyoming, Colorado, North Carolina and California. Wyoming's MAFFS have been deployed as far away as Indonesia. Last year, MAFFS C-130s flew to wildfires in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon and Mexico. They've been critical again this year against wildfires in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, it has stockpiled enough major parts, can source smaller parts, and can mend the biggest parts no longer being made to keep the MAFFS system running.

"The system was built for at least 20 years," said, Scott Fisher, a MAFFS coordinator for the Forest Service. "I would not be surprised to see this thing fly for a full 30 years."

Aero Union closed after the Forest Service canceled a contract worth a guaranteed minimum $14.5 million a year for firefighting services by six P-3 Orion air tankers. According to Forest Service, Aero Union wasn't keeping up with inspections for those planes.

Aero Union is contesting the revocation in federal administrative court. Dallas-based Comerica bank foreclosed on Aero Union and offered the MAFFS-related assets at auction last winter. It was not bought.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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