Fresno has become a key staging point in the aerial battle against the massive Rim fire burning near Yosemite.
The U.S. Forest Service's Fresno Air Attack Base is now a central pit stop for at least 10 planes fighting the blaze that's reached more than 180,000 acres, with aircraft from three other Valley bases stopping in periodically to refuel and reload fire retardant, said air base manager John Harpain.
Patrick "Smiley" Tierney of Mariposa coordinated about 20 planes and helicopters on the Rim fire Tuesday. The two largest -- remodeled airliners -- drop about 20,000 gallons of red fire retardant each time they reach the fire from McClellan Park, the former Air Force base in Sacramento.
Tierney said the Rim fire is especially difficult to tackle. Most big fires have one or two fronts, but the Rim fire has five.
Additionally, he said, the fronts are burning in different directions up remote canyons.
Tierney fought two major fires in the same region over the past 15 years -- one killing a woman firefighter -- and said he knows the terrain that firefighters are up against now.
"(The canyons) are wicked evil steep and there are so many of them," he said.
Tierney is a veteran air tactical group supervisor. When he's in the air, he sits in the passenger seat and scans down onto the fire. From his perch high above, he can direct tankers and helicopters to where they should drop the retardant and water.
Tierney's pilot, Sean Caldwell of Falcon Aviation, flew his six-passenger, 36-foot-long plane at 9,500 feet on Tuesday with smoke soaring another 15,000 feet above him. He said he is especially wary of smoke plumes that spike in the shape of thunderclouds.
"You don't want to go into those columns, there's so much heat," Caldwell said. "They'll try to rip your wings off ... Those ones will just beat you up and take your lunch money."
Planes are usually grounded in the morning until cool air holding down smoke and obscuring the view gets "cooked off" by the sun, similar to Valley fog inversions in the winter, Tierney said.
The fire creates hot winds, which leads to turbulence buffeting the aircraft. The pair have come back with bruises from being tossed around.
"Pretty much constantly the wind is shaking," Caldwell said. "It will get you up out of your seat from time to time. Luckily you have shoulder harnesses to keep you in."
"The central location of the Fresno air attack base makes it very valuable," Harpain said of the base located at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. "The primary advantage of an aircraft is we can get to the fires very quickly in remote areas that are difficult for the ground resources to get to."
Bee environmental reporter Mark Grossi writes about the Rim fire's effect on air quality in Earth Log
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, email@example.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.