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Humanitarian Exhibit: Global Firefighting

Outside of the traditional fire response and prevention mission, the Department of the Air Force also supports a number of firefighting initiatives that often require a total force response. Firemen protect Air Force installations and surrounding communities, providing assistance and emergency services. Wildfire prevention, ecosystem management, and long-term sustainment of natural resources help wildlife and the environment. And when fires cannot be put out on the ground, airmen of the Air Force Reserves and National Guard can even fight fire from the sky.

Air Force Aerial Firefighting
In the western United States, wildfires are increasingly destructive. US Air Force aerial fire-fighting airmen and planes can step in to help the US Forest Service in emergencies.

The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) is specialized equipment that can fit into a C-130 Hercules aircraft quickly. When all civilian firefighting planes are activated and more are needed, the Forest Service can call on MAFFS-equipped USAF units for help.
Reserve airmen in Colorado and Air National Guard members in California, Wyoming, and Nevada train annually with MAFFS, and are always ready when needed.

A MAFFS unit uses pressurized air to spray huge amounts of liquid instantly. With the C-130 flying 150 ft above a fire, it discharges 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds. The liquid covers an area a quarter mile long and 60 feet wide. MAFFS can use either water or “slurry,” a red-dyed retardant that doubles as fertilizer. Its color helps aircrews see where it fell. Planes can be refilled for another mission in 20 minutes.

The USAF formed MAFFS units in the 1970s after a fire in Long Beach, California destroyed hundreds of homes and overwhelmed civilian ability to respond.

Cleanup After the Fire
The Phos-Chek fire retardant dropped by the C-130 aircraft equipped with MAFFS leaves behind a distinct, red-orange residue on protected foliage. This retardant is water soluble and fades to pink as it dissipates. Trees, grass, and other vegetation are washed clean by rainfall. Sometimes, the Phos-Chek must be removed from hard surfaces, like sidewalks or houses. Cleaning these surfaces requires only water, a soft-bristled brush, and some patience to return to normal.

Ground Firefighting
Air Force Wildland Fire Branch
The Air Force fights wildfires, but preventing them is also important. The Air Force Wildland Fire Branch (AFWFB) supports the Air Force mission by preventing severe wildfires on Air Force bases in the United States. When wildfires do start, the AFWFB helps local fire fighters put them out.

The Air Force must also enhance and protect its natural resources. The AFWFB works with partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage ecosystems and to protect endangered species on Air Force land. Often, its proactive management plans prevent wildfires, conserve the environment, and support base operations all at once.

Fighting Fire with Fire
Wildland firefighters prevent large wildfires through fuel reduction. Unhealthy and dense plant growth and debris from severe storms like hurricanes can build up in unmanaged forests. If a wildfire starts, this dry vegetation becomes a large amount of fuel that causes it to spread faster and burn longer and hotter than a normal wildfire. Firefighters reduce the amount of fuel in an ecosystem mechanically by thinning and pruning trees and creating brush piles and fuel breaks. They use tools like rakes, chainsaws, bulldozers, and wood chippers to treat an area.
Then they start a fire. Unlike wildfires, these strategic prescribed burns are carefully guided by firefighters to safely consume built-up fuel. If a wildfire starts there later, it will be smaller and easier to control because it has less fuel to burn. The AFWFB treats over 130,000 acres of federal land annually.

Severe wildfires can cause a lot of damage to base infrastructure and nearby communities. They also cause long-term damage to local ecosystems. Larger fires burn hotter, scorching nutrients out of the soil, and ash from wildfires temporarily pollutes nearby bodies of water. Fires damage biodiversity and promote soil erosion.

For very large blazes, local firefighters can call on the AFWFB for support. The challenging 2019 Alaska wildfire season saw 719 fires burn roughly 2.6 million acres. The Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson Wildland Support Module helped fight fires throughout the state. Wildland firefighters used all of the equipment in the adjacent case to protect lives, homes, and critical infrastructure.

Dressta TD-9S LT Fire Tractor Dozer
The Eglin Wildland Support Module in Florida used the Dressta fire tractor dozer on display in the exhibit to clean up debris and to contain both wildfires and prescribed burns.

This dozer is equipped with a plow, which firefighters use to create strips of bare land called fuel breaks that prevent a fire on one side from spreading to the other side.

Engine: Cummins/QSF 3.8/T4F
Engine Output: 113 Hp (84 kW)
Maximum Speed: 6.5 mph (10.5 km/h)
Blade Capacity: 2.9 yd3 (2.2 m3)
Maximum Drawbar Pull: 40,690 lbf (181 kN)
Length: 14’ 4.5” (4.3815 m) 
Operating Weight: 24,251 lbs (11,000 kg)

Disturbing Habitats
Some species of plants and animals are fire-dependent. They need periodic disturbances like small low-intensity fires to keep their habitats healthy. These fires burn away dense and unhealthy plant growth but leave larger fire-resistant trees unharmed. By removing some plants, small fires stimulate nutrients in the soil, allow more sunlight and rain to get to the ground, and create room for food like grasses and forage growth to grow. Periodic fires also prevent large wildfires by burning natural fuels in small amounts.

Ecological Succession
Grasslands that are left undisturbed eventually become forests. Plants and animals that live in forests replace the ones that live in grasslands. This process is called ecological succession. Natural disturbances, like fires and large storms, can temporarily stop or reverse this process.

Widespread human settlement has broken up habitats and has made natural disturbances less effective. Wildland firefighters create man-made disturbances through prescribed burns, tree thinning, and mowing to keep habitats at the right level of succession for local plants and animals.

Conservation Success
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker: The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker only makes its home in old-growth pine forests like the longleaf pine forests found on Eglin and Tyndall AFB's in Florida. Wildland firefighters actively manage over 373-thousand acres of pine forest with prescribed burns and have drilled over 1,500 artificial nest cavities for the birds. Their successful efforts played an important part in helping the woodpecker to be downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2020.

Rattlesnake-Master Borer Moth: The Rattlesnake-Master Borer Moth only lives on the Rattlesnake-Master Plant found in mesic prairies. The prairie near the runway at Little Rock AFB is one of two places in Arkansas where the moths live. Firefighters mow and burn new tree growth annually during the moths’ dormant season. Removing new trees keeps the land open for the plants the moths depend on and keeps the runway clear of dangerous obstacles.

Fire Tools
One display in the exhibit is a flapper tool used by firefighters to put out small fires. Its flaps are made of fire resistant material and the long handle allows firefighters to stand far back from fires and swat or stamp out flames. It can also be dragged along the ground to smother fires.

Firefighting helmet
Perhaps no other piece of firefighting equipment is more familiar than the helmet. It is made of fiberglass and its dome shaped crown helps deflect falling debris and flames. Firefighters wear the LED powered headlamp around their helmets to light the way in smoky and dark conditions.
AF Wildland Fire Branch firefighters out of JBER now wear only gray helmets. This helps identify them when they are working alongside firefighters from other departments and agencies.

The Pulaski is a combination axe and adze tool used by firefighters to dig trenches, chop trees and roots, and build firebreaks. It was developed by Ed Pulaski, a ranger with the US Forest Service. He is credited with saving the lives of 45 fellow firefighters during the Great Fire of 1910 that burned more than three million acres in northern Idaho and Montana.


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