NINEMILE – It’s hard to find a forest fire without a helicopter hovering its way toward trouble. This summer, a few U.S. Forest Service choppers will specialize in flying toward safety.
“This is a new capability for the Forest Service,” short-haul trainer Seth Weber said as a pair of AStar B-3 helicopters circled a rolling pasture near the Ninemile Ranger Station on Thursday. “The National Park Service and the military have been doing this for years, and the Forest Service has relied on those other entities for help. But we need a quick response time for injured personnel, so we’re adding it to our helitack teams.”
“Short-haul” rescues happen in places where a helicopter can’t land because of trees or steep terrain. Instead, it dangles a rope up to 250 feet long to a rescue team, who will attach a victim and themselves for a lift out of danger. It may also deliver rescue medics the same way.
“We call this the ‘screamer suit,’ ” short-haul spotter trainee Tracy Stull said of a red fabric harness that looked kind of like an oversized dog life jacket. “It’s a great way to get out the walking wounded – someone with an ankle or shoulder injury who’s mentally alert.”
The screamer suit (that name is actually sewn into the tag) wraps easily around a victim and then clips into a carabiner on the long rope.
More serious injuries go into the Bauman Bag, which Stull compared to a giant tortilla. The bag incorporates a backboard with a protective cover and built-in straps for attaching to the rope.
“This is one of those procedures where it’s not complicated, but it is high-risk,” Stull explained.
Already a qualified helitack crew supervisor, Stull said the short-haul spotter training covered what to do inside the helicopter. That includes weighing the wind, tree cover, weather and other factors that determine the safety of a rescue; monitoring engine gauges while the pilot concentrates on the link-up with the rescue party, and generally making sure everyone gets home alive.
Helitack crews are different from Hot Shots or smokejumpers, although they have similar elite characteristics. The teams range in size from 10 to 20 members, plus a helicopter crew. In addition to flying initial attack missions on forest fires, they may provide reconnaissance or even start controlled burns in remote locations.
While helicopter rescues have been a staple of action movies and military operations for decades, Weber said a recent push from firefighters convinced Forest Service leadership to add the tool to its agency toolbox.
“You can’t just toss somebody into a bucket and fly away,” Weber said. “There’s a lot of risk and a lot of exposure and a lot of liability if something goes wrong. We want to do this right from the beginning – go slow to go fast.”
The training session at Ninemile was limited to just two helitack teams, one from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and one from Wenatchee, Washington.
For this fire season, they likely will be the only two Forest Service teams qualified to fly short-haul missions. Other fires will continue to use the outside agency airlifts as needed.
“We’re aiming for a zero-fatality workplace,” Weber said. “We want this tool to help get us to that end state. But there are times when you see – wow – is there more risk doing this than not doing it?”