SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP ) - 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."
In a 270,000-acre wildfire in San Diego County, the state's
largest blaze, flames sent hot air into the atmosphere, while
cooler air alongside the flames pushed down, creating a wind shear.
"It's like driving a car over a plowed field," said California
Department of Forestry Capt. Ron Serabia.
Serabia and other pilots flying missions throughout Southern
California said they were stunned by the damage caused by the
blazes: "It looks like the surface of the moon. There's not a
stick of wood."
"Have you ever seen pictures of Hiroshima? That's what it looks
like," said tanker pilot Jim Cook.
The job has risks even during lesser fires.
Two pilots died earlier this month when an air tanker just like
the one Bell flies crashed in the San Bernardino National Forest,
where Bell has been working this week. It was the eighth air tanker
crash in the United States in the past decade, according to the
National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Sixteen people
have died.
Three crew members were killed in a June 2002 crash near Reno,
Nev., when the wings fell off a 1957-model C-130A tanker as it
dropped retardant. The next month, a wing snapped off a P4Y-2 air
tanker near Estes Park, Colo., killing both crewmen. Those two
types of tankers have been grounded by the Forest Service and
Bureau of Land Management.
The nation's fleet of air tankers includes Orions, DC-4s, DC-6s,
and DC-7s and P-2V Neptunes, owned and operated by private
companies under contract with the Forest Service or state forestry
departments.
Only about 12 tankers can fly around any single fire without
creating gridlock or risking a collision, said Fred Batchelor of
the California Forestry Department.
On Thursday, dense fog kept planes grounded most of the day in
the San Bernardino region. On Wednesday, it was thick smoke that
kept them down. Earlier in the week, 30 mph Santa Ana winds off the
desert made it useless for them to even attempt dropping fire
retardant.
The planes do not directly save homes. Pilots said their heavy
load of retardant could do more damage to a house than a fire
would.
At a Forest Service air tanker center in San Bernardino, where
the planes make 25-minute dashes in and out of a blaze dozens of
times a day, shaded bleachers have been set up for observers.
"They're big and they're loud," said David McCallum of
Riverside, who stopped by to watch on Wednesday. "I love the
concept of these operations, the work, the activity, what's
involved. It's all very exciting."
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Associated Press Writer Kim Curtis contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)