The 2nd Air Combat Command of the Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish), together with Colombian National Army personnel attached to Joint Task Force Omega’s Air and River Component and to the Rapid Response Force thwarted two wildfires in different parts of Sierra de La Macarena National Park, in the department of Meta, Colombia. The forest reserve is 130 kilometers long by 30 kilometers wide. Caño Cristales, home to a delicate ecosystem of endemic flora and fauna and also known as the River of Five Colors, can be found within the jurisdiction.
Although both fires were under control in record time, park management confirmed that flames destroyed 5,000 hectares of native forest. “It’ll be 50 years before this area is able to recover, however, it will never be the same,” FAC Colonel Juan Carlos Rueda, commander of Joint Task Force Omega’s Air Division, told Diálogo.
More than 200 personnel took part in the operations, dropping 95,000 liters of water and fire retardant. The first fire burned from January 30 to February 3, 2018, in the northern part of the municipality of La Macarena. The second fire was larger. It started on February 21st in the southern part of the government-protected area.
“While fighting the [second] fire, the Air Force used the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS II) for the first time,” Col. Rueda said. “We stopped the fire in three days. The flames, which advanced quickly, destroyed more than 3,000 hectares. It was the right time to use a tool acquired in 2017 from U.S. manufacturer United Aeronautical Corporation with whom we have a training program for the past eight months. Putting this fire out was our first real-time exercise.”
The MAFFS II system can drop up to 13,000 liters of water and fire retardant. The system was designed to be installed on C-130 Hercules aircraft.
“With the MAFFS II, we were able to drop a larger amount of water from a closer distance with greater accuracy. The plane was provisioned at Apiay Air Base, in the 2nd Air Combat Command, just minutes from the disaster area,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel John Jairo Báez, head of the National Personnel Recovery Center, told Diálogo. “We’re the only country in Latin America with this capacity. Our pilots’ performance was flawless. They’re very knowledgeable about firefighting.”
Experience, control, and decision-making
Flying a plane with the features of a C-130—considered the flagship aircraft in military aviation for its size—requires a lot of experience, especially during firefighting operations. The aircraft weighs 60 tons when carrying a maximum load of liquid fire retardant, which must be dropped from a height of 45 meters above the flames, flying at 200 kilometers per hour. “It’s important to stay within the established limits to deliver the water. We can’t fly at lower altitudes or faster speeds,” said to Diálogo FAC Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Alfredo Caviedes Silva, commander of the 81st Transport Group and a C-130 pilot during the mission.
The drop takes just seconds. Coordination with the crew is a must to decide where to start and stop the drop. “I ended up being the first one to operate MAFFS II during a live forest fire, but, out of the nine pilots we trained, anybody could have done what I did,” Lt. Col. Caviedes said.
Three crews received training from the system’s manufacturer in the United States as well as in Colombia. “They’re the [FAC’s] best trained crews to operate the Hercules, with more than 2,000 flight hours with the [MAFFS II] system set up,” Col. Rueda said. “We have three crews: a code-red crew on the front line, a secondary code-yellow crew, and a third reserve crew for both of them.”
Bambi Bucket and drones
The Bambi Bucket system, a device to load large amounts of water onto aircraft that was key to put out the fire, was installed on a Black Hawk from the 2nd Air Combat Command. Over three days, FAC made 73 drops from the Bambi Bucket, assisted on the ground by specialized firefighters from Villavicencio, Colombia.
The use of drones was also very helpful to get both disasters under control. Thanks to the remotely controlled aerial vehicles, crews on the ground and in the air were able to detect areas with the greatest number of hot spots, as well as the size and direction of flames.
Service members know that such incidents can happen at any time. In the first three months of 2018, Colombia experienced a dry season favorable to hot spots. People also sometimes start fires that get out of control. Authorities found that dissident groups from guerrilla forces with direct influence on the community encourage them to use deforestation to plant illegal crops and end up harming themselves and damaging their own belongings.
The Office of the Attorney General of Colombia indicated in a press release that it is moving forward with the prosecution of five individuals identified as the perpetrators of the forest fires in Sierra de la Macarena. The fires were completely extinguished March 4th, with additional firefighting efforts on the ground to put out hot spots and finally secure the area.