When Richard Pantusa soars just a couple hundred feet above the 70- and 80-foot flames devouring fields and forests, he stays focused and calm, after all it's what he was trained to do.
Pantusa is an Air Force pilot assigned to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, but recently his missions have taken him to California, where drought-fueled wildfires this summer have scorched more than 3.1 million acres as they swept into residential areas, killing more than two dozen people and leveling hundreds of homes.
Since July 22, Pantusa has been a part of a fleet of planes trying to stanch the damage, dropping up to 3,000 gallons of retardant at a time to stifle flames, protect neighborhoods, and help ground crews build containment lines.
When fire resources are pushed to their limit and fire situations are critical, Air Force pilots like Pantusa get the call.
"Wildland fire poses a significant threat and we start talking about fatalities and loss of massive amount of properties — we take it very seriously," Pantusa said.
So far, Pantusa was called to do two separate missions in California, each a week long. During his missions, which were based out of Sacramento, Pantusa worked with five other people on the plane — a co-pilot, a flight engineer, and two load masters — who helped drop the retardant, along with a host of others to help coordinate the inter-agency response to fight the fires.
Each day the crew is briefed on the day's strategy, then sit by their plane awaiting an assignment. When they're called, it can take less than 15 minutes to arrive at their fiery targets.
"It is one of the most critical, sensitive things we do other than doing airdrops in combat," Pantusa said. "This is of the same caliber because it is critical that we do it well, we do it right, that we do it safely."
Pantusa, who's back a Peterson Air Force Base, could return to fight the fires as late as October while the Air Force is deployed in California. Until then, he's grateful for the opportunity he's had to help.
"A block of homes or lives that are saved you can't really take account of what that really means except that it's really rewarding," Pantusa said. "And it's worth our best effort to do what we can to help."