Firefighters of the sky: Behind the scenes of the air attack on the Washburn Fire

More than 360,000 gallons of fire retardant have been dropped in the eight days of the fire.

Vanessa Vasconcelos Image
Friday, July 15, 2022
EMBED <>More Videos

Action News visited the Fresno Air Attack base to introduce you to the team that's helping fight the Washburn Fire burning in Yosemite National Park.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fire crews on the ground and air are gaining momentum on the Washburn Fire burning in Yosemite National Park.

Containment is growing on the blaze, which sparked last week and has already burned thousands of acres.

More than 360,000 gallons of fire retardant have been dropped in the eight days of the fire.

Action News got to visit the Fresno Air Attack base to introduce you to the team, making it all possible.

Pilot Christian Holm mans one of the air tankers working the Washburn Fire.

"It kinda gives me, you know, goosebumps to be a part of it. When I say it's my passion, it really is," he says.

His air tanker is capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

When we spoke to him, he was gearing up for his 25th drop over the blaze charring Yosemite National Park and the Sierra National Forest.

Though his role is critical to combating wildfires, he's humble, calling it one part of a much larger operation.

"It's a team effort. The fixed wing is just one aspect. We have the helicopters, the boots on the ground, the gals and guys that are in this 100-degree heat with their packs and working high elevation," he says.

The Tanker pilot of almost three decades started as one of those pairs of boots on the ground, working as a firefighter in Southern California and Central Santa Cruz County Fire before getting into aerial firefighting.

"Every year seems to be the largest fire in history for all the perspective states, so fire behavior and size of incidents seem to have grown," he says.

Holm is flying out of the Fresno Air Attack base at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

"At the base, everyone has their own role, from the mixers to the loaders to the parking tenders to the pilots that are flying," says battalion chief Ben Castaneda.

Castaneda says fire retardant is mixed at the base.

"It goes from there, underground to the pits where they load each aircraft."

As aircraft approach, crews get to work, quickly refilling their tanks before they fly back to the Washburn Fire, where the chemicals help ground crews keep the flames contained.

But their team responsibilities go beyond that when assigned to a wildfire.

Air Attack surveys the size of each fire, picking the aircraft needed, keeping them filled with fuel and retardant, and using their eyes in the skies to provide intel on fire behavior.

"They can go up and down the state. This year alone we've sent tankers to Arizona, Nevada, Utah. They made their drops and then come back at night," says Castaneda.

Castaneda says regardless of the day or incident, they stay ready for anything.

"Wake up every morning expecting the worst and make the best out of it."

The CAL FIRE and Forest Service facility has supported aerial operations on fires from Central California to western Nevada since the 50s.