No new parts, support for C-130 wildfire system

Associated Press Modified: July 7, 2012 at 3:16 am •  Published: July 7, 2012

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The demise of the only company that manufactured a device specially designed to spray fire retardant from the back of U.S. military C-130 cargo planes has some experts worried about the future viability of a program that has helped fight wildfires for 40 years.

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System is a bus-sized device that can be shoved into the belly of a cargo plane and then used to spray retardant, or slurry, at 3,000 gallons in less than 5 seconds. The $4.9 million device's only manufacturer, Sacramento, Calif.-based Aero Union, went out of business in August, and no other company has replaced it. Critical spare parts also are no longer being made.

The MAFFS C130s 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.

"Thank God we have them. Can you imagine if we didn't have them?" said Tony Morris with the Wildfire Research Network, a Pacific Palisades, Calif., group that advocates for improved means to fight wildfires.

"At what point can we maintain control, or at what point do these fires burn out of control?"

Aero Union closed after the U.S. Forest Service canceled a contract worth a guaranteed minimum $14.5 million a year for firefighting services by six P-3 Orion air tankers. The Forest Service said 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. They failed to sell.

A bank spokesman declined to discuss any plans for those assets.

The Forest Service has stockpiled enough major parts, can source many smaller parts, and can mend the biggest parts no longer being made to keep the system running, said Scott Fisher, MAFFS coordinator for the Forest Service.

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