Dozens of young men and women new to the work of rappelling out of a hovering helicopter to fight backcountry forest fires were trained in Salmon last week by personnel from Salmon Helirappellers and the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s Salmon Air Base.
There was a ratio of about one instructor to every two of the 66 trainees. The rookies have classroom training and participate in buddy safety checks to make sure their gear is fitted correctly before they practice, first on the ground, then rappelling from towers and, finally, rappelling from a hovering helicopter in the field.
Salmon has hosted the training every year since 2011, said Eric Bush, national rappel program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Salmon hosts training for veteran helirappellers every third year, he said, alternating with Forest Service air bases in Missoula, Montana, and John Day, Oregon. Standardized training and more safety measures were instituted after a helirappeller died in a free-fall accident from a hovering helicopter during a proficiency test in 2009, Bush said.
A new descent device with fail safes to automatically stop helirappellers from free-falling to the ground and a new stronger and lighter rope that resists the heat of friction and possible melting has replaced the “Sky Genie” equipment of the past, said Amy Ando, fire prevention technician and former helirappeller on the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
The Forest Service designed the new rope looking at heat-resistant ropes used by rappelling welders dangling from steel structures, said Jeremy McIntosh, rappel equipment specialist at the agency’s National Technology and Development Program in Missoula. The newer rope and safety gear has been used by dam inspectors rappelling down the face of a dam to check for cracks and safety.
The Forest Service’s new rope is a rope within a rope made of modern fibers that can hold up to 9,000 pounds before breaking, he said. However, the upper limit of weight for a helirappeller and gear is 300 pounds and is based on the capacity of the rappel frame attached to the ceiling of helicopters, which is rated for the lesser weight.
The new rope and other gear are made of more modern materials and are lighter and stronger than older nylon ropes, McIntosh said. That helps helirappellers who sometimes have to hike out long distances from the backcountry fires.
Helirappelling got its start in 1972 in Oregon and Washington, said Bush, and the first rappel onto a forest fire was in 1973 on the Deschutes National Forest. There were a lot of helitack programs in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960s, Bush said, where helicopters would fly as close as possible to a forest fire, land and drop off a helitack crew to do initial attack on the wildfire.
Trainees were loudly repeating orders of spotters and supervisors as they double-checked their safety gear before rappelling off the towers at the Salmon Air Base last Wednesday. They watched demonstrations and practiced letting go of their descent device for an automatic self-arrest or stop, and they did the same with solving gear problems mid-rappel. Once on the ground, they had to quickly unhook from the rope dangling from the tower that stood in for the helicopter and rapidly get away from the landing zone.
“We don’t sell (to the public) that we take risks” in helirappelling, Bush said. “If there’s a place to land near the fire that’s safer (than rappelling), then we certainly will.”
In the past, the maximum rope length was 250 feet. Now, with the new heat-resistant rope, a 300-foot rope can be used, which increases the safety margin for a helirappeller in tall timber, Bush said. Helirappellers can rappel into a 20-foot-by-20-foot opening in the forest canopy. Helicopters must hover 50 feet above the tree canopy to avoid rotor strikes on branches, so the longer 300-foot rope increases safety.