In California, Air Tanker Pilots Help Keep Wildfires At Bay As fires blaze across the state, California firefighters have called in some of the biggest air tankers for help. The giant jets are dumping a fire retardant, Phos-Chek, on the flames.
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In California, Air Tanker Pilots Help Keep Wildfires At Bay

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In California, Air Tanker Pilots Help Keep Wildfires At Bay

In California, Air Tanker Pilots Help Keep Wildfires At Bay

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In West Los Angeles, more than 7,000 homes have been evacuated due to the Getty Fire. It's burning in the Santa Monica Mountains. That is tough terrain for fire crews, so large jets are dumping retardant on the wildfires. Reporter Matt Guilhem spoke with the pilots of one of the biggest air tankers fighting the flames.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: The three engines of Tanker 914 whine and fade as the bright orange-and-white jet comes to a halt on the tarmac in San Bernardino, Calif. From the outside, it looks pretty similar to a commercial passenger jet. It's a different story from the inside, says pilot Kevin Hopf.

KEVIN HOPF: Yeah, you're standing in a Douglas DC-10 made in the mid-to-late-'80s. In its original passenger configuration, it had about 350 seats.

GUILHEM: Hopf is the lead pilot with 10 Tanker, an Albuquerque company that operates four firefighting jets on contracts with government agencies. Inside - no passenger seats, no overhead bins, no nothing really. Three big tanks attached to the outside of the plane hold up to 9,400 gallons of fire retardant. That makes for a pretty nimble jet, says Hopf.

HOPF: We're flying this airplane at about 200,000 pounds lighter than we normally did, which makes it very maneuverable. Are there places that the helicopter can get to that we can't? Sure, absolutely. But it's a pretty small margin there of places that we can't put this airplane.

GUILHEM: Remote terrain in canyons and on hillsides, like what's burning in LA, is where the aircraft shines. Drops are made from only a few hundred feet above the ground.

HOPF: We get a lot of input as far as how can you get that big of an airplane down that low to the ground? The airplane doesn't know what's below it. It has no idea what kind of terrain we're flying over. We just need to keep it at a certain airspeed, which we do.

GUILHEM: That airspeed is about 160 miles per hour, by the way. Standing outside the plane, co-captain Diego Calderoni (ph) says this kind of flying can be hard on the crew's family.

DIEGO CALDERONI: I mean, they do know it's dangerous. I've always been in forms of aviation of this sort, so they've gotten used to it. They know what I do, and they know I'm happy doing it.

GUILHEM: Wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour are expected tomorrow and could push flames into homes quickly, which likely means another busy day for Calderoni and the crew.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in San Bernardino.

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