Annual training for firefighters who rappel out of helicopters into remote areas will begin next week with a few wrinkles to stay safe in a new world with a coronavirus outbreak.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest reported it will begin training 13 veteran rappellers and five flight crew members next week while trying to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“We are taking steps to minimize any risk of exposure in order to keep our wildland firefighters and our communities safe,” said Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark.
The initial required refresher course for the firefighters involves Salmon area residents. Out-of-area people will be trained in mid to late May or later.
Forest Service spokeswoman Amy Baumer said some of the 13 firefighters don’t live in Salmon year-round and were required to self-isolate for 14 days after coming back to the area.
Other health safety practices include staggering physical training time for firefighters, online refresher courses and increased cleaning of equipment and vehicles.
Bureau of Land Management fire information official Kelsey Griffee in Idaho Falls said, “Most trainings for this fire season are being presented virtually or just within your crew module” in response to the virus outbreak.
The Salmon training site is one of three used by regional firefighters. The other sites are in John Day, Ore., and Missoula, Mont.
Helicopter rappel crews have adopted techniques and practices used by military operations to insert a force into a remote area quickly to battle wildfires. Crew members train extensively to keep the operations safe and also work on rigorous physical fitness. The firefighters often carry packs weighing 80 pounds or more and have to carry their gear out to the nearest road or pickup point, with pack-outs of 8 to 12 miles not uncommon.
“Physical fitness and conditioning are absolute necessities,” according to one Forest Service heli-rappel crew manual. “Experience has shown that in addition to performing the job better, fit employees generally have less injuries throughout the fire season.”
Other minimum physical requirements for wildland firefighters include four basic exercises — push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and a timed 3-mile run.
In addition to specific training, helicopter rappel firefighters generally have two or more firefighting seasons under their belt and have formal medical training or other technical firefighting skills.
The helicopter rappel crews are generally the first strike force in the event of a wildfire.
“Rappel crews may be utilized for large fire support, all hazard incident operations and resource management objectives,” Baumer said.
Baumer said the situation of the COVID-19 outbreak is constantly changing, but they hope to conduct required training in the next two months for other helicopter rappel crews.
“While the COVID-19 outbreak is unprecedented, wildland fire personnel are emergency responders and can quickly adapt to changing situations; they are trained to handle situations like this,” the Forest Service said in a news release.