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Rappelling into Hell: Helitack Firefighters

Rappelling into Hell: Helitack Firefighters

Kurt Kamm

Rappelling 50 to 200 feet from a helicopter into remote, rugged country near a roaring wildfire might sound like part of the plot for a Sylvester Stallone action flick. But it’s all in a day’s work now for the Santa Fe National Forest helitack crew.

Helitack stands for “helicopter-delivered fire resources,”and is the system of managing and utilizing choppers and their crews to assault wildfires as an first spear firefighting attack. Because of the manuevaribility of helicopters, Helitack teams can rappel into the heart of unruly blazes and use their vehicles broad accesibility to penetrate and control areas unreachable by ground crews.

The term helitack seems to have first appeared in a 1956 Los Angeles Times article, which described the “first of a series of tests—tabbed the Helitack Program—on the use of helicopters in firefighting will start next week in the San Bernardino National Forest.”

All helitack teams use an incident Helibase to stage, plan, and supply their aerial operations. Generally, a helibase is in a field location that is proximate to the Incident Base Camp so that supplies and personnel can be ferried by ground to the helibase. Later, more distant helibases can be established closer to the blaze to maximize efficiency and reduce flight costs. Depending on the location of nearby structures, helibases are occasionaly located at a nearby airport or back country runway. The name of the base is designated by the name of the fire, though on large fires there can be more than one helibase.

Helitack bases are staffed with a Manager, Deck Coordinator, Flight Logistics Coordinator, Radio Specialist, and various Helibase support subordinates. An “H” in a circle designates the location of a helibase on an wildfire fire map.

The Santa Fe agency trained the crew in helicopter rappel, or helirappel, this year. On Friday, the eight-member crew practiced near Bandelier National Monument. “We’re one of the last forests to have a helirappel crew,” said Bob Skeen, who manages the helicenter three miles west of Bandelier’s entrance off N.M. 4.

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