Helitack Pilot Desiree Horton talks about fighting wildfires from above
ABC News/aviatrix99 – Smoke plumes and an orange glow render the typically picturesque tree-lined view above hazy mountains into a nightmarish, apocalyptic scene. Shouts declaring “brush fire!,” echo over radios.
Firefighters swarm a helicopter and fire helicopter pilot Desiree Horton prepares for liftoff.
“This is a dangerous job,” Horton said. “You are putting your life at risk to save and help people.”
Horton, the only female fire department helicopter pilot in California, knows she plays a vital role fighting the wildfires.
“The aircraft is trying to slow [the fire] and get the guys on the ground to put the line in and just stop it dead in its tracks,” she said.
While there are over 320,000 firefighters nationwide, only 4% are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Obviously I’m the only female, but I don’t see it that way when I’m out there working,” Horton explained. “I’m just like everyone else doing the same job.”
As the only female, she had to wear male flight suits since they did not have any for women. Horton, who has been flying since the age of 19, said the job can be tough since her voice is recognizable among the male voices.
“It’s harder for me because everyone knows who I am,” she said.
Horton credits her achievement to her work ethic and supportive men in her field.
“There were no other women out there doing what I was doing, that I knew of,” said Horton. “I was able to prove myself and kind of kick butt out there.”
Nearly 200,000 acres and over 6,000 fires have burned in California this year, decimating over 700 structures throughout the state.
The aerial attack from the sky is strategic. Pilots have to be precise as lives and forests depend on accuracy; dousing flames with 360 gallons of water while hovering at just 100 feet.
“We’re able to put fires out, save people’s homes and save people’s lives,” Horton said.
Dropping water and crew while maneuvering between the low-lying electrical lines, requires an intensity and skill few can achieve as Horton navigates the helicopter to places where firefighters cannot penetrate.
She knows her career choice is dangerous but believes she won the career lottery and hopes other women follow their own dreams.
“There’s always going to be someone out there that’s not going to believe you can do it,” she said. “You got to follow your heart and you’ll get there.”