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Keeping wildfires at bay...one Helitack crew at a time

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With a helicopter passing over a scenic mountain meadow you almost forget about the seriousness of the firefighting training.

CLE ELUM - When one thinks of a first responder, the local police, fire and ambulance often spring to mind. But, when a wildfire strikes as a result of lightning, fireworks or other human-caused events in the forest, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has someone else in mind.

These are the crews that serve in the DNR Helitack crews. Men and women ready for action hop onto a Huey and prepare to ward off a potentially devastating fire.

The pilot of the Huey has already calculated the load according to temperature and altitudes at which the helicopter will be flown, according to Helitack Assistant Crew Supervisor Kellen Probert, who is training to become a pilot.

He said the pilots must adjust calculations for flying into the area of the fire and fighting it with every temperature change of five degrees or altitude change of 1,000 feet.

"The crew is part of the pilot's manifest," he explained, noting a chart that is posted at the staging area for the crews.

The crews from the Ellensburg base for the DNR Southeast Region was yesterday (Tuesday) training at a remote location north of Cle Elum, known as the North Fork Hatchery Helibase.

"The aircraft and crews are sent out to various staging locations throughout Washington," shared Dan Boyle, the helicopter program coordinator for the resource protection division of DNR.

He said this year fire crews are concerned about wildfires because of unusual weather experienced in the past couple of months.

"On the east Cascades west and south slopes the grass is beginning to dry...it is tall, providing a lot of fuel to burn," shared Boyle.

The rain, he explained, helped the wild grasses grow.

"The concern is this fire season may be volatile," Boyle continued.

For this reason it is important the DNR fire crews are well prepared.

The training will help the seasonal crews and the pilots work fast when in the heat of the moment. The training involves first completing a one-week class on fire control, suppression and emergency response.

After completing the class, the fire crews must pass a "pack test," according to Boyle. He explained the test involves carrying a 45-lb. pack filled with equipment three miles in 45 minutes.

Afterward, the crew will work together, training for the quick response on the Helitrack team. Crew members are responsible for maintaining and loading gear needed for each mission.

Once loaded on the helicopter, the crew members are lifted and transported to a point as close to a fire as possible, according to Boyle.

"The aircraft mission is an initial attack and first response with a five-minute launch," he shared.

The crews are responsible for protecting DNR lands, but can assist other agencies if necessary.

"Our first concern is DNR land," explained Boyle.

He said one pilot is attached to a crew of two to five firefighters and a manager. A support fuel truck is also dispatched to accompany each helicopter.

The firefighters are an average age of 23, "...mostly college students," explained Boyle.

He said the firefighters, once the helicopter touches ground, unload gear and attach a 150-lb. bucket to the Huey within five minutes.

"The firefighters conduct a ground attack and the pilot initiates an attack from the air," Boyle shared.

The pilot would have already spotted a water source before landing. That allows the pilot to then collect approximately 260 gallons of water to assist the firefighters with the effort of suppressing the fire.

"The pilot injects a suppression foam into the bucket before dipping into the dip site," Boyle shared.

The suppression foam makes the water more efficient at dousing the flames threatening to damage property and forest lands.

Boyle shared crews can work up to 16 hours in a shift, but are required to rest for eight hours between those shifts. "The average shift is until dark, but a crew can stay past if arrangements are made...the helicopter has to be back by sunset."

He continued, sharing, the crews also use down time for proficiency training. "They complete an hour training per week, if, for instance, they have two weeks down time."

Last year the DNR battled 133 fires, and the helicopters were in the air more than 800 hours. The crews have already in 2010 suppressed 54 fires that have burned approximately 98 acres.

The hope for crews as the fire season gets underway is they won't be in such high demand. If they are, however, every bit of training is important for the safety of the forest, as well as the safety of their lives.

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