Clovis News

Fresno-based aviation officers fight fire in flight

Some of the state's firefighters don't man a water hose, set backfires or operate bulldozers, but instead fight fires from 2,500 feet in the air.

"I'm the airborne choreographer of the fire fight," said Pat Basch, the forest aviation officer for Sierra National Forest.

Basch this week has been fighting the Big Meadow fire in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. While on missions, he sits next to the pilot as their plane circles a wildland fire, cues other aircraft below him about when to swoop through to drop retardant and continues to stay in touch with crews working on the ground.

Coordinating firefighting efforts in the air can get intense. Basch said he juggles as many as four radio conversations at once so aircraft and ground crews can operate efficiently and safely.

Air tankers fly as low as 150 to 200 feet when dropping retardant, so keeping track of them is crucial, said Cal Fire Capt. Ryan Pack, who like Basch is an aviation officer.

"You have to have an aptitude for multi-tasking," Pack said.

And there is no margin for error. Pack recalled one occasion in 2008 when two helicopters doing water drops on a fire in the Sequoia National Forest nearly got entangled. "I had to call one to drop in altitude real fast," he said.

Both men work out of the Fresno Air Attack Base on Clovis Avenue next to the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It is operated jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.

"I bring the fire experience from the ground into the air," said Pack, who has battled fires for 17 years. He recently took part in fighting a wildfire in Monterey County and this week was awaiting his next assignment.

The first day of fighting wildfires is crucial, because they can spread quickly in all directions, Basch said Wednesday during his lunch break before heading back to fight the Big Meadow fire.

If you don't stop a fire early enough, "It's 'good night, Irene,' " he said.

An air tanker drop -- adding up fuel, retardant and the pilot's time -- can cost $3,000 to $6,000, depending on the size of the plane, Basch said.

But those initial air tankers are saving taxpayer money, he said, because dousing a fire early prevents the likelihood of deaths and injuries and the loss of property that sometimes can top millions of dollars.

With large-scale wildfires popping up across the state, Valley firefighting agencies are being called upon for assistance. The region in which a wildfire breaks out will initially call for assistance from neighboring regions. There are six fire regions in the state through the Office of Emergency Services.

With fires burning to the north and south, requests for aid have reached the Valley. Fire agencies have to strike a balance between providing help for fighting wildfires in other parts of the state while still ensuring adequate fire protection at home, fire officials say.

As of Thursday night, there were about 350 Valley firefighters from Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera, Mariposa and Merced counties battling wildfires in San Bernardino County, the Angeles National Forest and Yosemite National Park, Cal Fire officials said.

Firefighters from agencies throughout the Valley are part of a mutual aid agreement to assist in combatting fires around the state, fire officials said.

A handful of Fresno firefighters have been battling the Oak Glen 3 fire in San Bernardino County, said Joel Aranaz, Fresno's deputy fire chief of operations.

"We can only send so many resources, because our first responsibility is to the residents of Fresno," he said.