Fort Worth man piloting firefighting jumbo jet over California wildfires

A Fort Worth man is helping out by flying above the flames of the historic California wildfires.

Marcos Valdez has been in California piloting a 747 jet that gets so close to the fires, the distance between the plane and the trees is less than its wingspan.

The job is the culmination of a passion he's had since he was a teenager. The "fire bomber" pilot was a volunteer firefighter for Denton and Ranger, Texas when he was in high school and college. He then went on to become a pilot, flying 747s.

He’s currently doing his best to stop the spread of the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest fire in California history.

“As far as aerial assets, we are definitely the biggest tool and the fastest,” Valdez said.

FOX4 spoke to Valdez via phone on Wednesday, getting interrupted twice by possible launch orders.

Valdez, whose call sign is "Taco Loco," is part of a three-person crew that flies a Boeing 747 into the fires. Like a fire truck from the sky, the "fire bomber" drops more than 19,000 gallons of retardant on each run.

One photo shows the plane flying into the Holy Fire, south of Riverside County, following what's called a "lead plane," guiding them into their drop zone that is dictated by firefighters on the ground.

“He'll come get us and guide us into the fire and show us exactly where they want our drop,” Valdez said.

They don't use air traffic control, but instead, a tactical frequency -- flying as low as 200 feet above the trees.

“We're flying less than our wingspan over the top of the trees, you know, and fire and smoke. The adrenaline rush is incredible,” Valdez said.

So far on his current assignment, he's helped fight the Mendocino Complex and Carr Fires in Northern California and the Holy Fire in Southern California.

Valdez works for a company called Global Supertanker, which is in its second season contracted with CAL FIRE. He says that's who pays their bills, but it's really the firefighters on the ground that they're working for.

Valdez compares the job to the adrenaline of a NASCAR driver and the duty of a public servant.

“You come back to the hotel after fighting a fire all day long and the sense of accomplishment is just amazing,” Valdez said.

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