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WATER BOMBS AWEIGH : MILITARY LEADS WILDFIRE MANEUVERS.

Byline: Kermit Pattison Daily News Staff Writer

With the roar of propellers sweeping low over the mountainsides, military air crews from across the United States have descended on Ventura County this week to sharpen their wildfire-fighting skills.

In a weeklong exercise, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve crews are flying low-level practice runs, showering the remote backcountry with water.

``The plane is traveling about 5 percent above its stall speed,'' said Lt. Col. Michael Ritz of the Air National Guard. ``It's considered to be one of the most hazardous peacetime flying missions that the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve perform.''

The training camp will involve hundreds of personnel from the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Oxnard.

Eight C-130 aircraft from the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve came to the base from California, Wyoming, North Carolina and Colorado. Although the exercise is held annually in the United States, this year marks the first time it has come to Ventura County, said Ritz.

``New air crew members get their initial training at this annual camp,'' said Ritz. ``Old-timers, veterans of the system, get refreshed in the latest techniques.''

The planes will fly 50 to 70 sorties per day in the Santa Monica Mountains and Los Padres National Forest as they practice making drops along fire breaks to contain a blaze. But they will use only water instead of the biodegradable, chemical retardant normally used to fight fires.

``It's expensive to drop the retardant,'' said Ritz.

Otherwise, Ritz said, the flying will be virtually identical to the real thing, absent the smoke.

Led in by spotter aircraft, Ritz said, the C-130s will plunge down to drop their loads just 150 feet off the ground in five drop zones in the Los Padres National Forest and Santa Monica Mountains.

The exercise will involve about 200 people from the military, the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and other agencies, said Jim Youngson, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The training also has the added benefit of familiarizing air crews with Ventura County's wildfire-prone terrain. Fire season began early this year when a brush fire charred more than 10,000 acres between Fillmore and Santa Paula last month.

``Practice makes perfect,'' Youngson said. ``When an incident does occur, they will certainly be able to hit the ground running.''
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 22, 1996
Words:401
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