For 45 years, Bob Valette has been on the front lines of California wildfires. The 78-year-old flies specialized tanker planes that drop thousands of gallons of the hot pink fire retardant that’s become all too familiar to people living in fire-prone areas throughout the state.
As one of only a few dozen Cal Fire tanker pilots in the state, Valette is always on call during fire season, ready to take off from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport at a moment’s notice.
Locals, however, know him best as Chef Dustin Valette’s dad, aka “Pops,” frequently found chatting up diners at his son’s upscale Healdsburg restaurant. The two Valettes, who are native Healdsburg residents, have a close relationship, so it wasn’t surprising that as a chef, Dustin has followed in his father’s footsteps. Sort of.
When fires roared through Sonoma County in 2017, and again in 2019, father and son both became first responders — on the ground and in the air — for their community. Bob would fly dozens of strategic missions pinpointing areas of the fire while Dustin served hundreds of meals to hungry firefighters.
Growing up in a first-responder family, Dustin says he learned early on the kind of danger his father faced.
“It was always a little scary,” Dustin recalled. As a child, he spent a lot of time at the airport watching his dad fly to wildfires from the Mexican border to the Oregon border.
“It’s not a low-risk industry,” he noted, a point hammered into him at funerals he attended for his father’s comrades.
But he also learned how to handle an emergency. Dustin learned not to panic, but to make a plan and take time to get organized. He learned that people need direction, and when stepping in to help, communication was key.
“I learned how to react with a cool, calm head and to make a game plan, whether that’s confronting a fire or feeding people,” Dustin said. Armed with a cellphone filled with the numbers of top chefs throughout the county, Dustin rallied his peers to provide hundreds of meals to first responders in the early days of the 2017 disaster.
“When you’re asked to do 200 meals by tonight, having a quick text thread with who does what is pretty huge,” Dustin said.
The devastation was unfathomable
The night the Tubbs fire began in 2017, Bob Valette saw the glowing hillside and knew things were going bad. Trained to know the difference, by scent, between a grass fire, a structure fire and trees being consumed by flames, he went to the Santa Rosa airport in the early hours of the morning to get a vantage point atop a large water tank.
“I got there and just watched the fire. I saw the embers coming across the freeway and start to glow in Coffey Park. As soon as the sun came up, I went to work,” said Bob.
The senior Valette flies a specialized S-2 tanker plane that can drop up to 1,200 gallons of fire retardant on each flight. The converted military planes are precision flyers used by the state since the late 1970s to combat large wildfires when weather conditions permit. The 22 state-owned planes cannot fly when the winds are strong or smoke is too heavy.
©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
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