High above the southern California desert, helicopter pilot Desiree Horton swoops past parched chaparral, checking in with her firefighting crew. "How’s the height?" she asks.
It’s a training run as the team practices for the real deal: a wildfire that could pop up at any time during what’s expected to be an above-average fire season.
Horton, 43, has been preparing for these moments half her life. "This is my dream job," she said, "and this is something I've been working for my whole career."
It’s not an easy job to get. She’s one of just 20 helicopter pilots with full-time state fire jobs — and the first permanent female pilot at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.
"I don't think of it any different, male or female, because I do the same job the guys do,” Horton said,
Horton, a native of Southern California who grew up in Studio City, became a pilot at age 19 and started off doing traffic and news. She eventually contracted with the U.S. Forest Service before joining Cal Fire three years ago.
That job is critical in California, where the four-year drought has turned trees into tinder. Already in 2015, more than a thousand wildfires have ripped through 4,206 acres — that’s twice as many fires as the state normally see by this time of year.
Firefighting aircraft can be part of the first line of defense as pilots drop crews into almost any kind of terrain, giving them the best chance to knock down the flames before they spread.
"We've all had moments where we think, 'Wow, that was close,'" Horton said."If I was scared, I shouldn’t be doing this job."
Horton says she gets emotional thinking about the impact she’s had on others in her industry.
"I've actually had other female helicopter pilots come up to tell me and tell me how I've inspired them," she said. "I have to hide tears."