A pilot's eye view of the Sierra Bermeja fire. / SUR

Video | Sierra Bermeja firefighting pilot: 'From the air, it was hell; the visibility was almost zero'

More than 50 aircraft joined the ground efforts to extinguish the devastating fire that raged for six days, until it was declared 'controlled' on Tuesday morning

JUAN SOTO

Juan Carlos Gómez has spent half his life facing flames. A professional firefighting pilot since 1986, he confesses that the blaze that devastated Sierra Bermeja and the Genal Valley was a "tsunami" that cannot be fought with existing means.

With hardly any sleep, the Granada-based pilot from Cádiz worked hard to reinforce the Infoca aircraft fleet from a seaplane of the Martínez Ridao company. After six days facing extreme conditions, he reveals the role that he, and his fellow pilots, played in bringing the blaze under control.

Professionals from all over Spain fought the fire. When did you join the efforts?

When the fire was declared all the Infoca fleet began to act, and when it was escalated to Level 2, other regions were drafted in. We belong to the Martínez Ridao company, and we were hired by Castilla La Mancha, which requested four amphibious aircraft, and by Extremadura, which requested two.

How did the fire look from the sky?

It was Dantesque, there was very low visibility and almost nothing could be seen within the 80 kilometre perimeter. Without air traffic coordination it would have been impossible.

Where was the flying base?

Our operations base is in Utrera (Seville), 75 kilometres miles from the fire. There is an almost unknown airfield there that has been used for logistics and the refuelling of up to 12 aircraft. The workload has been massive for all the personnel who have managed the logistics. We have had ten mechanics working practically all night doing checks so that the planes can fly from sunrise to sunset. They have been fundamental to this operation. The aircraft need vital maintenance every time they go out to sea.

How has the work been in the Sierra Bermeja?

It has been hectic but very exciting. We have given everything, there have been 50 aircraft in total including planes and helicopters.

There has been much talk about the virulence of fire, what has stood out for you?

I have been a pilot for 35 years and have been involved in firefighting since 1986. I can tell you that something is changing: summers are getting longer and periods of very high temperatures are more frequent and they dehydrate forest masses. We see that the fires are becoming more aggressive and, although I believe that we have the best firefighting organisations in the world, we are reaching a stage where sometimes we feel inferior to the situations that we face.

Pilot Juan Carlos Gómez, next to one of the seaplanes. / SUR

There are also more and more residential developments in forest areas that make it difficult to extinguish fires. While we are saving those, as a priority, that allows fire to expand elsewhere. We all have to become aware that something is changing.

I have lived in Chile and participated in one of the most serious fires known to mankind: 700 kilometres of smoke and fire that lasted almost a month. And that is now coming here.

A fire like this generates its own microclimate and we are almost nothing against that great monster. There is talk of cleanliness of the mountains, but the forest is not a garden. We have to be honest, but we can't always fight fire because it is much stronger than us.

This time the rain helped us – it was our ally, although I think, with some certainty, that before it arrived, the fire was really beginning to be contained.

Have you experienced difficult moments?

The worst thing that happened in this fire is that we lost a fellow firefighter. We experience difficult times very often, especially when we see that there is danger for ground personnel and that they require our support.

For us it is very difficult when we drop the water, since you have to find the point in a scenario with hardly any visibility, with extreme turbulence and fire lurking. When we are flying there are many different sensations and we can suffer sudden mood changes. But you have to manage your emotions, or you decision-making capacity is stunted.

What job do you do from the air?

It depends on the product we carry. When we leave, on the first flight from the base, we carry retardant products that are loaded on the ground to create chemical lines of defence. After that has been dropped we refill with sea water, which is dropped to are to lower the intensity of the flames where the ground personnel.

How many trips can an amphibious plane make?

Each of the planes dropped 3,000 litres every seven minutes. In total we will have done about 40 or 50 trips a day, but when you are in the air you lose track of how many you do. There were 13 amphibious planes in the air: seven from Infoca and six from our company.

How do you load a seaplane?

It is known as a 'scooping' manoeuvre. The water is caught with a kind of scoop that comes out from the side of the skates. The plane loads in 12 seconds.

Is it a tricky manoeuvre?

It can be complicated loading water, as jet skis cross in front of us and many boats leave turbulent wakes behind them, although the Guardia Civil patrol boats help us.

Some people have criticised us for getting too close to the bathers, when the reality is that they were the ones who came up to us to take photos and record videos. People must remember that we have to load close to the shore because if we do it too far offshore we could damage the plane.

How did you feel when it started raining?

At the time I was at the Utrera base. There was a feeling of euphoria and it made me want to cry.