Rappeller training in Idaho modified for COVID-19

Rappel training in Salmon ID
Rappel training in Salmon, ID. USFS photo.

Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

CURRENT HEALTH GUIDELINES TO BE IMPLEMENTED AT FIREFIGHTER ACADEMIES

As the fire season approaches, annual firefighter and rappel training conducted in May and June on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho continues this year, but with modifications for COVID-19.

“We are taking steps to minimize all risk of exposure in order to keep our wildland firefighters and our communities safe,” said Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark.  “Rappellers provide a vital service as wildland firefighters trained and prepared to operate in aerial operations, and as aerially delivered firefighters.”

Specific mitigation measures include reducing the number of rappellers in training, screening all participants for COVID-19 prior to their travel, closely following current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health guidelines and social distancing practices, and aligning with the State of Idaho’s mitigations measures for each stage of the plan.

Training events are as follows:

  • Week of May 19: Twenty-three veteran rappellers from six of the twelve Rappel bases around the nation, along with fifteen additional support staff and three helicopters with flight crews training in Salmon.  The training will take place at the Salmon Air Base and Sal Mountain.
  • Week of May 21: Salmon Air Base will be hosting Spotter Emersion training with twenty-three personnel participating in training which will better prepare the trainees for becoming a qualified rappel spotter to deploy rappellers and cargo safely.
  • May 27 through June 7 or until complete: Thirty-nine rookie rappellers, along with fifteen support staff and three helicopters and flight crews training at the Salmon Air Base and Haynes Creek.

The Salmon-Challis National Forest hosts new firefighters from across the country every year for this intensive, performance-based training.  The purpose is to train rappellers and spotters in accordance with the National Rappel Operations Guide; to strengthen leadership, teamwork, and communications within the rappel community, and to produce quality aerial delivered firefighters for use in fire and aviation operations.

The USForest Service National Helicopter Rappel Program’s primary mission is initial attack.  Rappel crews may be utilized for large fire support, all hazard incident operations, and resource management objectives.

Integrating air and ground operations for prompt initial attack on wildfires

If you were operating as an integrated air-ground team, your air element would be assigned to you before you get to the fire. You start with your own air support.

Rice Ridge Fire in Montana helicopter
A firefighter talks to the pilot of a helicopter as he drops retardant on the Rice Ridge Fire in Montana August 16, 2017. USFS photo by Kari Greer.

Guest Author: Bean Barrett

This is a military viewpoint. I am not a professional firefighter but I would like to think that I may have learned a bit about air operations over my 31 years of flying as a Naval Aviator and a tiny bit by living in the forested front range of Colorado, evacuating for wildfires, and working with our fire protection district and County for the last 8 years.

From the outside looking in on fighting wildfires, it has become apparent to me that those who fight wildland fires might want to take a hard look at a modified organizational concept and operations if available ground personnel are going to be reduced by the COVID virus this fire season.

Stop thinking of air as an independent resource. It isn’t a case of separate but equal.

Why?

If the IA gets done quickly and done well, there will be far less need for extended attack with additional personnel and aircraft on a larger scale.  This Australian study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of rapid ground and air attack and the advantages offered by air support. It is a great first step in explaining the utility and effectiveness of air support. This study was done when Australia was primarily using SEATS and Helos. If you haven’t read it yet, at least read and think about the implications of page 4. What is required is a US program that finds the fire early and integrates air and ground operations for prompt IA.

FireAviation.com has previously discussed the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 virus on firefighting manpower this fire season and has recommended that the Federal government contract for significant additional exclusive use aircraft. If there aren’t going to be enough firefighters this season, aircraft offer the only option to make up for some of the shortfall in firefighting capability.  If more and better IA is the preferred strategy then EU is preferred to CWN aircraft that get here tomorrow. CWN contracts aren’t going to be much help for IA.

The wildfire firefighting business needs to collectively look at developing an integrated firefighting air-ground team. The Army and the USMC have amassed a lot of knowledge and experience on how to closely integrate and employ aviation with ground forces. Much of it can be found in Joint Chiefs of Staff publication JP 3-09.3 provided you want to wade thru the acronym alphabet soup and military doctrine. The military experience shows that effectively integrated air support greatly increases the effectiveness of both air and ground forces.

What kind of aircraft?

There is a big difference between the potential of integrated fire fighting operations and the simultaneous fire fighting operations practiced today. Integrated operations offer the most synergy between air and ground units because the ground and air elements work directly on the same immediate tactical objective in time and space. Integrated aircraft directly support a ground crew or module’s tactical objectives. Simultaneous operations are synchronized in time but pursue a larger overall objective in the fireground. I realize the terms “integrated” and “simultaneous” aren’t normally used in the firefighting vocabulary but they represent the concept I suggest the community needs to consider with respect to aviation utilization.

Firefighting tanker aircraft do not have the advantage of precision-guided munitions or computer aiming systems. The retardant or water payload is free fall and accuracy is subject to the vagaries of visibility, release parameters, and winds. Slow and close is better for accuracy. This and the overriding requirement for ground personnel safety is the principle reason that not all aircraft are suitable for direct integrated support.  Only rotary wing aircraft and small fixed wing aircraft operating in direct communications with and in visual contact with ground firefighting units can provide safe drops for what used to be called in the military “danger close” air support.  The accuracy of a fixed wing Type 1 or VLAT and the large area coverage of the payload cannot ensure safe drops in close proximity to ground personnel even with a good smoke mark by a lead plane. Large fixed wing is best utilized for simultaneous support and independent operations as opposed to integrated support.

Helos may be the best all around choice due to their ability to utilize nearby water sources, their potential faster reload-return cycles, high drop accuracy, their multi-mission logistics, transport, visual reconnaissance potential, and on station persistence.

Command and Control

Consider direct control of smaller aviation assets by ground crews and modules. Locate local air control capability with the ground component. The ground controller would coordinate with any airborne commander or supervisor such as an ATGS.  Integrated support aircraft would check in and out using existing procedures but operate directly with and under the control of their ground element. The employment and effectiveness of available rotary wing and small aircraft should prove to be optimized in integrated IA operations. The earlier the relatively smaller aircraft payloads can be employed, the more effective they are going to be. The IC would still be responsible for overall asset assignment and command but if the concept is viable, the IMT will be utilizing more effective combined air-ground units and working with combined units instead of coordinating and directing separate but equal air and ground efforts.

An aviation element can also provide a significant communications relay capability to and for the ground element.

Results?

Since this is a different concept, only those of you that do the job can judge. Based on military experience and the previously mentioned Australian study, I believe combined integrated operations should be a much more effective use of rotary wing and smaller fixed wing aviation assets that might otherwise be underutilized. It should provide better overall results, especially if employed in rapid IA, assuming aircraft operating contracts enable timely availability. EU vs CWN.

Should a strike team have 1 or 2 integrated aircraft?

Would a reduced strength Hotshot crew be as effective if they had direct air tanker support from a Type 1 or 2 helo?

How about a reduced strength hand crew with a type 1 or 2 helo?

Would a wildfire module function more effectively in an IA with drops, reconnaissance, and extended comm links provided by a dedicated direct support Type 2 or 3 helo?

Should a helitac operation include a dipping capability to support the ground crew? Would their mission capability expand?

I don’t have any answers to these questions but I absolutely know that “you fight like you train” and “you train like you plan” if air and ground don’t plan and train to operate as an integrated team they cannot fight as an integrated team and if more tankers are put under contract this year, the tanker effectiveness and efficiency will not be as optimized as it could be. You can only expect more of the same on a larger scale unless you change how you operate. The only good way to find out if integrated air-ground operations will work is to try it.

For the ground firefighting element: Perhaps some of today’s thinking about aircraft utility in fighting wildfires has been shaped by the number of Unable To Fill’s received when you called for air support? If you were operating as an integrated air-ground team, your air element would be assigned to you before you get to the fire.  You start with your own air support.

If COVID is going to cause a significant shortage of ground firefighters, fight smarter not harder. If you’re an Incident Commander or in the IMT business try asking the US Marines about the Marine Air Ground Task Force [MAGTAF] organizational concepts and how the USMC integrates air into their operations. I can assure you, it isn’t a case of separate but equal.

Report from Medford air tanker base, June 9, 2016

The progression of the three air tankers through the retardant loading and refueling procedures was “like a ballet on the tarmac”.

Neptune tanker 01 41

Above: Neptune tankers 01 and 41 at Medford, Oregon, June 9, 2016. Photo by Kristin Biechler.

Kristin Biechler spent a couple of hours Thursday at the Medford air tanker base in southwest Oregon. She sent us this report and took the photos Thursday evening. Thanks Kristin.

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“Base Manager Lonnie Allison was very cooperative and allowed me to talk with various staff, including ground crews, pilots and dispatchers and to take photos up close. The Medford base is really jumping these past three days with the Pony fire in northern California. Neptune tankers 01, 10, and 41 (all BAe-146s) are making turnarounds to the Pony fire in about 45 mins. From Medford it’s about 12 minutes of flight time to the fire. They drop their retardant, then return to Medford to fill up with retardant and refuel if needed.

Neptune pilots
Neptune Pilots Rob Minter (left) – 6 years with Neptune and John Gallagher (right) 8 years with Neptune.

The pilots were telling me they get about 3 hours of flight time per refueling. Pilot John Gallagher said the Pony fire had made a big run on Wednesday night. He noticed a significant difference this morning that the fire had gone down into the canyon almost to the river and up another flank. He was based out of Redmond yesterday, but the three Neptune tankers are in Medford today for the Pony fire.

Neptune tanker 10

It was like a ballet on the tarmac with all three planes on the ground at the same time. The Redmond airport is also busy with aircraft on several fires in Eastern Oregon. T-162 and T-163 (photos from 6/8/16) are now assigned to Eastern Oregon fires, rather than the Pony fire in California.

I was listening to the air traffic communications between pilots and the Medford tower plus the USFS tanker base. A few minutes after departure one of the Neptune pilots reported seeing a new wisp of smoke, single column, and circled around to give coordinates. That turned out to be a small grass fire, very near the USFS Applegate Ranger District office. The tower made appropriate notifications and an Oregon Department of Forestry hand crew was dispatched.

Also of interest was the report that the Redmond, Oregon airport had to be shut down due to a disabled air tanker on the runway. Tankers from there are currently assigned to Eastern Oregon fires (Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires.) All tankers were being diverted to Klamath Falls, OR for refueling. There is also an air tanker base at Klamath Falls so refueling and retardant would not be an issue.

Also, note that VLAT T-912 is flying out of Castle AFB in California to the Pony fire. One of the dispatchers told me the turnaround on that DC-10 was about 53 minutes on the Pony fire.

retardant
Hunot Retardant Co. employees Jasmine Serabia (left) and her mother Cristina Serabia (right) in front of the retardant pumping station for Pits 1 and 2 at Medford.

I also met and talked with the ground crew that manages the retardant station. Cristina Serabia and her daughter, Jasmine Serabia are employed by Hunot Retardant Company out of Ramona, California and work on a USFS contract at Medford. Ms. Serabia indicated when the second, portable base is opened at Medford for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) she will assign a crew to that location and will also work shifts on that side of the airport. The scheduled date for opening that base is July 1 but with all the early fire activity it may be necessary to open it sooner.

Medford Air Tanker Base Manager Lonnie Allison wanted everyone to know, “we’re already kicking butt here at Medford.” As of noon today, they had just pumped 100,000 gallons of retardant for the season which began on June 5.”

Annual fire training in California for National Guard helicopter crews

national guard helicopter fire traning

By John Yount 

This year the annual fire suppression training for California and Nevada Air and Army National Guard helicopter crews was held April 15-17, 2016 near Sutter Creek, California. Chinook, Blackhawk, and Lakota helicopters participated in a mock fire incident using Pardee Lake as a water source.

The Guard is only activated when private sector helicopter operators cannot fill the incident commander’s resource orders for a particular type or mission specific helicopter. Usually the requests are for a Type 1 helicopter, a  Blackhawk or Chinook, that cannot be supplied by the private sector in a reasonable period of time.

national guard helicopter fire traning

The Lakota helicopter is used as a helicopter coordinator platform and for medical evacuation missions. If requested by the incident commander the Lakota can be dispatched with military medics. During the last five decades the Guard assisted on fires in almost every fire season.

national guard helicopter fire traning

The policy of teaming a Guard helicopter with a CAL FIRE military helicopter manager serving as a flight crew member has been a successful program for twenty years. The military manager not only provides tactical fire direction including initial attack on new fires but arranges for complete logistical support.  The manager works closely with a military liaison to make sure the program flows smoothly.

national guard helicopter fire traning

These photos were taken by Bob Martinez, a Volunteer in Prevention Photographer for CAL FIRE. You can see more of his work at his web site.

national guard helicopter fire traning

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