Playing 'The Fire Game' in California

About 150 feet above the treetops is low enough for Anne Le Bris to pick out pine cones, roof tiles and people waving from the ground.

But when she's at that height, the aerial firefighter is focused on just one thing: pinpointing exactly the right moment to drop 1,200 gallons of soupy red retardant on a fire to slow its speed until ground crews arrive.

It's dangerous work that calls for flying low to the ground through thick smoke and turbulence created by the blaze. It carries a greater risk of crashing and dying. Yet it's one of two things Le Bris has wanted to do for almost half her life.

"If I was scared, I wouldn't do it; I don't like to get scared," said the 37-year-old, who grew up in rural France.

As often as six days a week, Le Bris climbs into a tanker plane based at the Paso Robles airport. This is her sixth season with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and her first full season in Paso Robles; it's also her first flying a tanker plane solo.

She's only one of two women statewide contracted to fly air tanker planes for CDF.

But the petite Le Bris says that doesn't matter, nor should it. She doesn't know the other woman, who is based in Ramona, and she doesn't distinguish her friends and colleagues by gender, age or any other factor.

"They're a human being, not a woman or a man," Le Bris said recently at CDF's air attack base in Paso Robles. "We don't fly with our gender qualities. I'm just a pilot, and they're a pilot."

CDF Battalion Chief Kelley Gouette, who oversees the Paso Robles base, said the fact that Le Bris is a woman means little in the industry, in which hundreds of people clamor for every open job and competition is fierce just for an interview. He said the only difference is "that French accent on the radio."

Le Bris said if there's anything that makes her truly different from her colleagues, it's her age -- most tanker pilots are older men -- or the unconventional path she took to get here.

She didn't intend to come to the United States. She tried to get into the French Navy to fly planes, she said. But being 5-foot-1, she was not accepted because she was too short.

"I feel really fortunate to have managed to get in (with CDF)," she said. "I bugged so many people to get in. People would say, 'Oh, yeah, you're that crazy French girl who has, like, no hours (of experience).' "

Le Bris was 7 years old the first time she saw an airplane. It was a firefighting craft that scooped water from the ocean, and it raced across the sky above her home in France. She was thrilled to see it but too young to be thinking about flying such a plane herself someday.

When Le Bris first climbed into an airplane -- a tiny model with low wings -- as a teen-ager, she enjoyed the ride but wasn't impressed. Back then, she was skiing and kayaking, sports she thought were more exciting.

Then she rode in an old Belgian biplane. Someone Le Bris knew working as a mechanic took her on flights in the plane, and at one point he sent the craft spiraling toward the ground with both of them inside.

The aerobatics produced a high unlike any Le Bris had experienced, and flying became a life calling.

Le Bris abandoned the idea of aerobatic flying after realizing the career prospects would be limited. She didn't want to fly in air shows the rest of her life, and she wanted to help people. Public service was important in Le Bris' family -- both her parents were teachers.

"I like the idea that fighting fires is useful," she said. "It's like going to war, except everyone wants you to win."

To earn money to build up her initial flying experience, Le Bris took nine different minimum-wage jobs during a year in Scotland. Bartending helped perfect her English, which she needed to learn because it is the official language of the flying industry.

The money she saved earned Le Bris 15 hours of flight time -- essentially "nothing," she said -- but she kept working. It takes 40 hours to get a private flying license, and CDF pilots must accrue at least 1,800 hours before they're hired. Le Bris estimates she now has about 5,000 hours.

She returned to France and studied aeronautics, then opted 13 years ago to go with a friend to a flight school in Arizona that they had read about in a French aviation magazine. She taught novice pilots at a flight school in San Diego for four years, then flew passengers over the Grand Canyon and cargo in Seattle.

Six years ago, DynCorp, the company that supplies CDF with its pilots, offered Le Bris a job. Before she arrived in Paso Robles, she worked at bases in Hollister, Grass Valley, Columbia and Santa Rosa.

Bob Valette, one of Le Bris' instructors at the Santa Rosa base, said she's a great pilot because of her sound decision-making. "She understands the fire game really well," he said.

"In this business, you get respect by how good a pilot you are and how well you get along with other people, because of the amount of time we spend together," said Chuck Lees, the other tanker pilot based in Paso Robles. For those reasons, "she's probably one of the best."

Le Bris hopes for a career with CDF. And the months off will, she hopes, soon allow her to do the other thing she's long wanted to do: fly humanitarian missions in Africa. She's already been offered a yearlong contract to carry evacuees, food and doctors, she said, but didn't take it so she could continue working as a tanker pilot.

She's embarrassed by the attention paid her, insisting her colleagues are more experienced and other jobs -- like digging for diamonds in Africa -- are more dangerous.

"I'm just a pilot," she said.

Distributed by the Associated Press