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On a wing and a prayer

The throaty, guttural growl has become a familiar noise over the Brunswick Basin since Sunday. The roar of aircraft engines originating from the Grass Valley Air Attack Base is a reminder of a looming danger in the distance.

For the pilots who have had to fly over this week’s large wildfire in Colfax and drop flame retardant, the danger of the blaze is a reality. The same is true for the staff at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base, from which air tankers conducted 75 sorties Sunday and about 40 Monday to fight the Stevens Fire near Colfax.

On Tuesday, the pilots were able to take a break from the diminishing Stevens Fire but soon found themselves battling a new blaze west of Truckee.



“We’re doing a dangerous job,” said Charlie Jakobs, 30-year veteran of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It’s safety first, foremost and always.”

Suppressing a fire from the air is a risky team effort that begins on the ground, continues into the smoke, and lasts until the plane returns safely.




At the air attack base, a “plane director” guides the tanker to a parking location after it has landed. When the airplane is refueling, most people clear the area. If a rock became stuck in a shoe, the shoe might spark.

Blue-vested “retardant loaders” scurry toward the tanker and fill it through a hose at the end of the aircraft.

Eighteen-year-old Tom Simpson will be starting classes at Sierra College this fall, but now he is one of several in a blue vest.

“(Sunday) there was a bit more of a rush and the planes were getting backed up,” Simpson said.

When the Colfax-area fire was first reported, the tankers would fly in, refuel, get a belly full of retardant and take off. Monday was more relaxed as they did not have to leave until requested.

“You get some down time waiting for the planes,” Simpson said, calmly assessing a situation that is hectic just a few miles to the south, where the blaze was growing bigger.

The crews gather on a wooden porch overlooking the base. Half-full water bottles are scattered over the floor and picnic table. A mist sprayer provides relief for those who had been out in the sun without shade for too long.

It’s Monday, and pilot Jim Cook has just returned from a fly-by. His ears are ringing. Cook had been dumping retardant since 9 a.m., although he cannot remember the exact number of missions.

“It’s hot and smoky up there,” Cook said. “It’s turbulent.”

The tankers do not have air conditioning, and the glass bubble windows in the cockpits do not help the matter.

“It’s a hard and physical job,” he said. “Your hands and feet are continually doing things.”

Meanwhile, retardant loader Nathan Washburn is running his hands through the pinkish powder, which, when mixed with water, produces a slimy substance with a texture similar to liquid hand soap.

The retardant loaders are relaxing now. The two local tankers, as well one from Chico and one from Sonoma, have arrived, been refueled and have had retardant added.

Now, it is a waiting game, and it looks as though the wait could be long, if the dispatch call comes at all.

On this day, another team effort held the base together.

“Otherwise, you couldn’t get the job done,” Cook said.

While the Stevens Fire appears to be under control, another one can erupt at any time. The attack base crew will be ready.


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