CalFire Air Attack team fights fires with passion from the sky

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- When everyone gathered for the daily briefing at CAL FIRE'S Sonoma Air Attack Base, rising temperatures outside all but guaranteed that the lunch cooking on their barbecue would generate just the first smoke they would see today.

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"This is the hardest part of the sit here and wait," pilot Jerome Laval told us.

"We can get launched out of here right now," added Captain Nick Welch.

Welcome to a world of predictable unpredictability during fire season. "This is the only legal rush I am aware of," said Bob Valette, a pilot in his forty-second fire season, who keeps an extra pair of jeans and boots in the back of his plane.

Friday morning, his logbook registered 16, 997 fire drops. "When the bell rings we have five minutes to be in the air."

About five minutes later, it did, followed by a cacophony of turbines and propellers.

If you live in California, you have certainly seen some of CAL FIRE'S fifty-one planes and helicopters at work. This unofficial air force can be above a fire within twenty minutes, anywhere in the state.

The flying is certainly dangerous -- not as risky as it looks, no doubt -- but in rough air, "Definitely more than your typical E-Ticket ride," Valette told us.

"Can you spell the smoke in the cockpit?" I asked.

"Sometimes we have ashes floating around."

In a typical fire, Captain Welch flies the rear seat in a command plane, looking down from 25-hunded feet.

Each kind of aircraft, from tankers to helicopters, operates at an assigned flight level. Welch has been known to direct as many as 14 aircraft at a time. "Controlled chaos is a good name for it."

The twin-engin Grumman tankers typically drop at 150 and 130 miles per hour. "We try not to push the envelope," said Laval, who used fly Mirage fighters in the French Air Force.

"What is the difference between dropping bombs and fire retardant?"

"This is more rewarding because you help the guys on the ground and see the effects of it."

All pilots abide by one cardinal rule: Stay out of the smoke. "If you don't avoid the smoke, you die," Valette told us. He has taught every one of these men and women.
"The smoke hides trees, terrain, and other aircraft."

So said the seasoned professional who returned after fighting not one, but three fires today. His logbook now shows 16,999 drops, and counting.

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