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California Wildfires Test Airtanker Pilots

by Chris Sorensen |

In two decades of fighting fires from the sky, air tanker pilot Peter Bell had never seen anything like the vortex in the Southern California skies this week.

"There was a big spiral, like a tornado, that sucked all this dirt and garbage into the sky," he says.

Windshields on six tankers were cracked by the debris, and cockpits filled with smoke. Another pilot saw a 4-by-8 foot sheet of plywood sail past at 1,500 feet.

Thirty-five air tankers _ and 86 helicopters _ have been attacking flames since the wildfires started in Southern California on Oct. 21. Their key role has been to dump their $3,000 loads of retardant on the outskirts of the fires to help crews build firelines around the flames.

To many of the pilots, the fires that have ravaged Southern California this week are among the most intense they have ever had to fly through.

Usually, airtanker pilots are employed to douse small fires before they spread. Here, pilots are being forced to fly through narrow canyons, thick smoke and high winds. Earlier this week, the amount of wind-swept debris they were encountering prompted pilots to begin asking for reconnaissance planes to fly ahead of them on missions.

``People think we're daredevils, but we're not,'' said Bell, a pilot from Missoula, Mont., working under contract for the U.S. Forest Service. ``All we do is practice safety, safety and safety.''