Into the fire’s maw
With the Bell Long Ranger hovering at about 200 feet, Tahoe National Forest Helitack crew members Jon Tishner and Ryan Bellanca stepped out on the helicopter’s skids and waited for the signal.
Kneeling in the middle of the ship, crew superintendent Staci Dickson dropped her arms to her sides and Tishner and Bellanca swung off the skids, zipping down ropes that swayed under the helicopter’s wash.
So, what’s it like to rappel out of a helicopter and into the fire, so to speak?
“It’s exciting, real exciting,” said helitack crew member Richard Goodwin of Grass Valley, a veteran firefighter with 130 rappels into fires under his belt.
Goodwin, who started rappelling from helicopters in 1994 on the Klamath National Forest, said the Tahoe Helitack crew has seen action this summer locally and near San Bernardino and Durango, Colo.
The Tahoe National Forest added the Bell 206 III Long Ranger helicopter to its firefighting toolbox last year with funding from the National Fire Plan.
This year, Dickson said, TNF increased its helitack crew from seven to 10 and added the rappelling component.
Ideal for initial attacks, the speedy Long Ranger carries four helitack crew members and a full complement of firefighting equipment, and is often first on the scene.
“It’s another tool we can use to get to fires in remote areas quicker,” said Dickson, prior to Thursday’s rappelling drill at the White Cloud ranger station off Highway 20.
Dickson said the rappelling component is only used when the weather allows and in situations, for example, where the risk of hiking into a fire outweighs the danger of rappelling in.
Hanging under a helicopter at 250 feet is a risky position to be in, Dickson said. “You have to be heads up.”
To make a risky situation as safe as possible, the helitack crew goes through rappelling proficiency drills every two weeks at White Cloud.
Before being cleared to rappel from the chopper, Dickson said, helitack crew members go through a week of ground training before moving up to a 40-foot tower.
From there, prospective “sliders” begin rappelling from the helicopter at 50 feet, and then must work their way up to the maximum rappel height of 250 feet before qualifying as rappellers, she said.
“We do everything we can to enhance the safety of an operation,” said TNF public affairs officer Ann Westling. “With so many variables out there, we have to make sure that the things we can control are done safely.”
Soon after Thursday’s rappelling drill, the helitack crew was called to Newcastle to help fight the Quail Fire.
Jumpers vs. Rappellers
What’s the difference between smoke jumpers and helitack rappellers? Helitackers – also known as “sliders” – rappel down ropes to get to fires in remote areas fast, whereas smoke jumpers parachute in.
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