High-Tech Device Shortage Threatens Cargo Plane Wildfire System

Thursday, July 12, 2012
MAFFS II being loaded into C-130 cargo plane. (photo: Air Force Reserve)

When a U.S. military C-130 cargo plane crashed in South Dakota while fighting a wildfire on July 1, the crash destroyed one of only eight special devices—no longer being manufactured—that are used to spray retardant over vast areas.

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) is a bus-sized device, put in the belly of a cargo plane, that pumps out 3,000 gallons of retardant in less than five seconds and is used as a weapon of last resort by the U.S. Forest Service when states have exhausted all other firefighting options. They have been in operation for 40 years.

The latest-generation MAFFS II system has been in use since last year and they are still working out some of the bugs. “They haven't really used them enough, I don't think, to find out some of the problems,” said Mike Archer, a wildfire consultant from Glendora, California.

There are seven MAFFS left in the United States. Two are stationed in California and the rest are scattered around the nation. All of them have been committed to California fires in the past.

Congress established the MAFFS system in the 1970s after a fire burned into Long Beach, destroying hundreds of homes, and overwhelming the civilian tanker fleet's ability to respond.

The only company that made MAFFS, Aero Union of Sacramento, went out of business last year when the Forest Service cancelled a contract worth at least $14.5 million for servicing six P-3 Orion air tankers. Aero Union is contesting the cancellation, but in the meantime Comerica Bank has foreclosed on the company and offered MAFFS-related assets at auction.

No one else makes the $4.9 million MAFFS or parts for it. The Forestry Service professes not to be worried about the situation, claiming the system was designed to last 20 or 30 years. The agency says it has stockpiled major parts, can find replacements for smaller parts and fix parts that need repair.    

Bill Gourley, Aero Union’s former chief executive, isn’t so sure. “I may have my personal opinions, but I keep them to myself. I don't know. I wish the Forest Service well and wish all the folks involved well,” Gourley said.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

No New Parts, Support for C-130 Wildfire System (by Mead Gruver, Associated Press)

With Aero Union Gone, What is the Future of the MAFFS? (by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today)

Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System Fact Sheet

Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

Debate Over Use of MAFFS Fuels an Old Battle (by Michael Collins, Ventura County Star)

US Forest Service Cancels Airtanker Contract with Aero Union (U.S. Forest Service)

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