The story of Higgins Ridge

Smokejumpers who survived a 1961 wildfire on Higgins Ridge in Idaho will recount their harrowing experience in a film on Monday on Montana PBS. The Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell reported that “Higgins Ridge,” named for the location of the fire in Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, will air January 30 at 8 p.m. Mountain Time.

The U.S. Forest Service sent 20 smokejumpers to what looked like a routine fire from the air, but an afternoon cold front blew the blaze to an inferno on the Nez Perce National Forest. The jumpers, 8 from Grangeville and 12 out of Missoula — many of them rookies — shifted from fighting the fire to fighting for their lives. They instinctively wanted to run to safety, but they remembered the fate of 13 firefighters who had tried to outrun a fire in Montana’s Mann Gulch 12 years before.

With that tragedy in mind, they decided to hold up. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the black.

In the film, 12 of the 20 men who jumped the fire on August 4, 1961, share the story of how the fire surrounded them, showered them with embers, and forced them to shelter in place. After about three hours, helicopter pilot Rod Snider managed to land his Bell 47B-3 on Higgins Ridge, about 83 miles southwest of Missoula, despite heavy smoke and wind, and he shuttled the jumpers to safety. Snider, then a pilot with Johnson Flying Service who is now 92 years old, is featured in the documentary along with many of his original photos from 1961.

Bell 47 helicopter, USFS photo.
A Bell 47G helicopter, USFS photo.

“This is a story that, for 60 years, never was shared beyond a few smokejumper circles,” producer Breanna McCabe said. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. But when a dozen men who were there all corroborate the same series of unbelievable events, I knew it was time for the public to hear it.”

Many of the interviews were collected in 2019 as part of the National Museum of Forest Service History’s Higgins Ridge Oral History Project. The museum partnered with Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe for technical assistance recording the interviews, and McCabe collected additional interviews and materials to weave the stories into one captivating hourlong film.

Details and a 1-minute trailer are posted at higginsridge.org and viewers can stream the show at watch.montanapbs.org/livestream or from the Montana PBS Facebook page.

Bill Gabbert wrote a detailed story on this fire three years ago.

About the producer: Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe draws from 16 years of video storytelling throughout the West and beyond. She is eager to bring “Higgins Ridge” to audiences in 2023, a historical story that’s grounded at the Missoula Smokejumper Base in McCabe’s hometown. She remembers watching smokejumpers practice landing on the hill behind her childhood home, and today she enjoys hearing “silk stories” from her brother-in-law, an Alaska smokejumper. As a producer at Montana PBS, McCabe contributes stories to the program “Backroads of Montana.” Her last documentary, “Ghost Forests,” took viewers into high elevations to examine the threats facing whitebark pine. McCabe graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2009, and returned to earn her master’s degree in environmental science and natural resource journalism in 2020. In between, she worked as a broadcast news reporter for CBS News affiliates KPAX-TV in Missoula and KREM 2 News in Spokane. When she’s not asking senior smokejumpers to see their slide collections, she enjoys exploring trails, rivers and shores with her husband and their two pint-sized, high-spirited rescue dogs.

Bambi Buckets hit 40!

The very first Bambi Bucket was introduced back in 1982, and since then it’s become well-known in aerial firefighting operations around the world. Mark Tayler — general manager at manufacturer SEI Industries — says the bucket’s popularity is thanks to the company’s innovation. “It’s been a process of continuous evolution,” he told Vertical magazine.

The giant flexible bucket made from SEI’s iconic orange material was the breakthrough product in early development of helicopter-slung water loads. “The early tanks were bulky and rigid,” said Tayler, “and had to be either moved to the site of the fire by road, or flown there under the helicopter, and they weren’t reliable.” He said what they needed was a way that the tank could be transported to the site inside the helicopter, and then used to drop water reliably.

SEI's Bambi Bucket hits 40-year mark. SEI photo.
SEI’s Bambi Bucket hits 40-year mark. SEI photo.

In 1978 Canadian inventor Don Arney and his partner Mark McCooey started a company named after their founding principles: science, engineering, and innovation. While testing underwater airbags by suspending them filled with water, Arney wondered if something similar might be used as a firefighting bucket. Arney built a prototype in his garage and repeatedly tested it — there’s even an archive photo of him testing the damage resistance of the original design by whacking a filled and suspended bucket with a woodcutting axe. While still rigorous, the SEI’s testing methods are now somewhat more sophisticated.

Firefighting customers can choose from numerous custom options when purchasing Bambi Buckets. They range in size from 72 to 9,800 gallons (2,70 to 9,800 liters), which at the top end is just under ten tons of water, about as much as some airport fire trucks. Then there are options to add pumps that allow the bucket to be filled without submerging it, fire suppressing foam injection systems, and even floatation devices in case the bucket must be jettisoned in the water.

Since its entry into production 40 years ago, the Bambi Bucket has been used in over 100 countries and slung under a wide variety of aircraft, from light helicopters to the heavy Chinooks. Congratulations to SEI for hitting its 40th anniversary!

First flight of teleoperated helicopter aims for agile and safer fire operations

Helitack and on-the-ground firefighters learn to keep eye contact with a helicopter pilot. So it’s unnerving to look into the cockpit of this Robinson R22 and not see a pilot’s helmet as it lifts into a hover. But this is the point – this is a video of the first test flight of an uncrewed, teleoperated helicopter focused on fire missions. And it takes just a moment to spot a focused face in the control van behind the hovering helicopter – the pilot, holding a cautious yet quite committed in-ground hover.

First teleoperated flight of Robinson helicopter with Rotor Technologies
First teleoperated flight of Robinson helicopter with Rotor Technologies. The pilot is in the control van on the right.

On December 2, 2022, Rotor Technologies’ teleoperation tools demonstrated the first and key technical challenge of moving the pilot out of the helicopter. The first three-minute flight of “Birdy McBirdface” (named in honor of  “Boaty McBoatface,” a pioneering British uncrewed submersible) demonstrated the initial flight operations with their CloudPilot system and began testing and refining the remote piloting process.

To get to this launch, company co-founders Dr. Hector Xu and Greg McMillan studied the opportunities for improving aviation with technology. Their research showed that “firefighting came across as a very urgent need,” Xu said after the first series of test flights. “It’s a growing need in terms of the climate crisis. And people don’t have the tools to fight fires.”

After a year and half of programming and prototypes, they’ve launched their CloudPilot teleoperations system that relies on low earth orbit satellites to integrate accurate, real-time location-sharing and communications between the pilot and the helicopter.

While others are developing larger payload aircraft with autonomous piloting, Rotor is focused on light helicopters with real-time but remote piloting. By removing the pilot from the light helicopter, the payload increases from 170 pounds to 400, with a three-hour flight time. Even with that gain, Xu acknowledges that “in suppression operations, we will always be a little payload limited when compared with the competition.”

The advantages of a remote pilot become more apparent in precise and interactive operations, both high risk and more routine, “when flying low and slow in the deadman’s curve, such as ignitions, and providing logistics, food, water, tools. The case that is exciting is working on the fringes of the day. To build technology that is able to fly beyond visual flight restrictions, that improves situational awareness of remote pilots beyond the physical cockpit. The technology we’re building will improve situational awareness in low-visibility situations,” both to avoid inadvertent entry into instrument meteorology conditions (IMC) and to ensure safe flying in IMC. With CloudPilot technologies, even night operations become possible – think of the potential of aerial night ignitions.

Yet what adds the most value to a light helicopter with remote piloting? As Xu notes, “People have been building uncrewed rotorcraft for awhile … trying to build fully autonomous systems. We’re very clear this is teleoperations. A pilot is operating this remotely. Not a lot of people are building this technology, particularly in the civilian operations.”

And it is this clear relationship – between pilot and helicopter, and with fire operations on the ground and in the air – that Xu holds is unique in their approach, which will help build trust in new technologies that will in turn support safer mission operations overall.

Beyond wildland firefighting, use scenarios include disaster response, emergency management and eventually passenger certification.

With their success in the first flights, Rotor Technologies is planning for simulated firefighting scenarios in field tests this summer for their two prototype helicopters.

For more, see Rotor’s Medium post at https://medium.com/@rotor_ceo/first-flight-for-uncrewed-firefighting-helicopter-db5deb15a101.

Navy helicopter collides with firefighting helicopter, both land safely

At Brown Field near San Diego, Nov. 22, 2022.

Damage to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk after colliding with a UH-60A Firehawk
Damage to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk after colliding with a UH-60A Blackhawk contracted to SDG&E Nov. 22, 2022. NBC7.

It is very rare to hear about a mid air collision of two helicopters which then land safely with no reported injuries of the five occupants.

It happened Tuesday night Nov. 22 at Brown Field near San Diego during a night training exercise that included two Blackhawk variants.

Damage to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk after colliding with a UH-60A Firehawk
Damage to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk after colliding with a UH-60A Blackhawk contracted to SDG&E Nov. 22, 2022. NBC7.

One helicopter suffered damage to the main rotor and the other had damage to the rear stabilator, City of San Diego Public Information Officer José Ysea said.

Ensign Bryan Blair, spokesperson for Commander, Naval Air Forces, issued the following statement: “On Nov. 22, an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter attached to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 41 made an emergency landing at Brown Field in San Diego after experiencing a collision with a helicopter contracted by San Diego Gas and Electric during a flight for a night training event. Both aircraft landed safely and there were no injuries to personnel. The incident is under investigation.”

UH-60A Firehawk contracted to SDG&E that collided with a Navy MH-60R Seahawk
File photo of the UH-60A Blackhawk contracted to SDG&E that collided with a Navy MH-60R Seahawk Nov. 22, 2022. SDG&E photo.

The second helicopter, a UH-60A Blackhawk, N160AQ, is contracted to SDG&E for firefighting in the utility’s service area. An SDG&E official issued this statement regarding the incident: “We have been made aware of the incident by our contractor who owns and operates the aircraft and the most important thing is that all parties are safe.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Pilot of helicopter that started a fire with a landing light tells inquiry he did not see long grass before landing

File photo, MRH-90 helicopter
File photo of Australian Army soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment deplane from a 5th Aviation Regiment MRH-90 Taipan during Exercise Hamel 2014 at the Tolga Turf Club near Atherton, Queensland. (Photo: Australian Army)

As we reported in February, 2020 and later in December, 2020, a helicopter operated by Australia’s Army inadvertently started a bushfire January 27, 2020 in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It was caused by heat from the landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter as it set down in the remote Orroral Valley for a crew break.

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. February 4, 2020.

More information is coming into focus during an ongoing Coroner’s Court, including why the flight crew did not report the fire until after it landed 45 minutes later at an airport.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:


Dramatic accounts of how an army helicopter codenamed Angel 21 started a fire in the Orroral valley in January 2020 during a toilet stop, have emerged from the first day of evidence in the coronial into the disaster.

The fire burned nearly 90,000 hectares (222,000 acres) of the ACT, also burning into the Clear Range in New South Wales, laying waste to farmland along the way.

Counsel Assisting the Coroner Kylie Nomchong told the court the fire started about 1:30pm on January 27 and by 2:25pm it had burned 20 hectares.

She said by later that afternoon, it had burned more than 1,000 hectares and was out of control, and by soon after 6pm, it had burned 18,000 hectares.

It was not put out for five weeks.

On Monday, the court listened to recordings of the crew of the helicopter Angel 21 in the lead-up to the landing and immediately afterwards.

One of the pilots described what he saw as he lifted off the ground.

“The downwash basically worked like a blow torch,” he said.

‘Come up, come up. We’ve started a fire’
The crew of the chopper had been part of Operation Bushfire Assist, in which the Commonwealth was providing resources for the ACT to monitor for fires during the tinder dry conditions in the 2019-2020 summer.

The court heard Angel 21 had been in the air for about two hours checking on the condition of helicopter landing pads, which might be needed if there was a fire, when there was an exchange between the crew members.

“What are the chances of a whiz break?” one of the crew can be heard asking in the recording.

The Coroner’s Court heard it was the decision of another officer to land, but that the pilot flying that day, who gave evidence on Monday, had done a risk assessment and found it to be safe.

But moments later on the ground, a voice is heard saying:

Come up, come up. We’ve started a fire. We’ve started a fire. Turn the search light out.

When asked about the long grass, the pilot said he had not seen it.

The army has admitted it was a light on the helicopter that sparked the fire in the extreme weather conditions that day, and it was revealed some time ago that the unscheduled stop was for a crew break.

The pilot told the court that he knew the searchlight was hot, but was unaware that it could get to 550 degrees Celsius.

Two pilots who gave evidence on Monday said they had been using the searchlight to make sure other aircraft could see them in the smoky hazy conditions that summer.

The court also heard a recording of communications from a fire spotter in a tower nearby, who reported the fire almost immediately.

In his first call he described a column of smoke, and in a later call described it as grey and a bit orange.

Soon afterwards, the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency (ESA) was receiving reports of smoke from residents on Canberra’s southern fringe.

The fire was in an inaccessible area, but local authorities quickly dispatched 19 appliances and 13 aircraft, including water bombers.

It was to no avail.

Chopper couldn’t communicate with ESA, court hears
The question before the inquiry is about communications, particularly between the army and the local ESA.

“There is a live issue in this inquiry as to when, if ever, the army told the ESA Angel 21 had ignited the fire,” Ms Nomchong said.

She also said that included the manner in which the fire started and the coordinates of the fire.

The pilot was questioned on Monday about who could be contacted from the aircraft.

He told the court he did have contacts for the ESA officers and the communication systems on board did not provide for contacting them.

Ms Nomchong: “No one on Angel 21 could communicate with the liaison officers at ESA?”.

Pilot: “Correct.”

Ms Nomchong played several recordings of communications between the second pilot and air traffic controllers on the way back to Canberra in which he never mentioned the fire.

She asked him why he didn’t say anything about how the helicopter had started a fire, or give the coordinates.

“My mind was on the safety of the crew and passengers,” he said.

The pilot said he’d been concerned the helicopter had also caught fire and was damaged.

“I was contemplating what was going to happen on landing,” he said. “It was a life and death situation.”

The coronial began in controversial circumstances.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr was against an inquiry, saying he didn’t want a witch hunt.

On Monday Coroner Lorraine Walker opened the hearings saying the object was not to crucify anyone, but rather to make things safer for everyone.

The inquiry is expected to hear from 11 witnesses in total, including from some NSW residents.

Nine NSW residents had previously been excluded from the inquiry because Coroner Lorraine Walker believed her jurisdiction did not cover their interests across the border.

The was overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

Editor’s note 15/11/2022: The coronial inquiry has been put off until 2023, due to unforeseen circumstances which meant Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker was unavailable. The hearing was supposed to run for a week. A new date has yet to be set.

Orange County to purchase two Sikorsky S70 Firehawk helicopters

Expected delivery Fall of 2023

One of Orange County Fire Authority's new Blackhawks to become Firehawk
One of Orange County Fire Authority’s new Blackhawks, which will become a Firehawk. OCFA photo, Nov., 2022.

On October 27, 2022 after nearly three years of planning and assessment, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) Board of Directors approved the purchase of two new Sikorsky S70 Firehawk helicopters. The new aircraft will replace the two OCFA 1966 UH-1H “Super Hueys” that were grounded in 2020 due to significantly increased cost of operating these legacy aircraft.

Firehawks have become the industry standard across the Southern California fire service, and with this approval, the OCFA joins its surrounding peer agencies — Santa Barbara Fire, Ventura County Fire, LA County Fire, San Diego Fire, and CAL FIRE — that already have Firehawk helicopters in their respective fleets.

One of Orange County Fire Authority's new Blackhawks to become Firehawk
One of Orange County Fire Authority’s new Blackhawks, which will become a Firehawk. OCFA photo, Nov., 2022.

Brian Fennessy, Chief of the OCFA since 2018, told Fire Aviation in March 2020,“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced.” The Chief has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.

Previously when he was Chief of the San Diego Fire Department he commissioned an independent study to evaluate and recommend which type of helicopters the organization should be flying into the future. A Fleet Replacement Analysis by Conklin & de Decker Associates was conducted. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.

Chief Fennessy contracted for the same consultant to do a similar study at OCFA. They evaluated and compared five helicopters; Bell 212HP, Bell 412EP, Sikorsky S-70i, Airbus H215 Long, Airbus H215 short. The study was underway in 2020 and apparently came up with similar results.

The new OCFA aircraft will join OCFA’s two Bell 412EP helicopters, providing the agency with four operational helicopters for the first time since 2020 and empowering OCFA Air Operations to perform day/night aerial fire suppression, remote rescues, and other all-hazard missions at a far safer and capable level. True force multipliers in battling wildfire, the Firehawk’s water-dropping capabilities eclipse that of the Bell412s by 256% per tank-load (350 gallons vs. 1,000 gallons).

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, helicopters 1 and 4. By Bill Gabbert, February, 2020.

Before the new aircraft are delivered to the OCFA in fall of 2023, they must first be transformed from Blackhawk to Firehawk by United Rotorcraft, an industry leader in the design and manufacture of mission critical equipment. This transformation will include digital cockpit upgrades for ease of navigation while fighting fire and a reconfigurable cabin that accommodates up to 12 firefighting crew members and their equipment during emergency operations.

When the photos of the one of the new helicopters was taken a few days ago it was at the United Rotorcraft facility in Texas, where typically the company applies new livery. Then they will flown to another UA facility near Denver for rest of the lengthy conversion process.

One of Orange County Fire Authority's new Blackhawks to become Firehawk
One of Orange County Fire Authority’s new Blackhawks, which will become a Firehawk. OCFA photo, Nov. , 2022.

Another Air-Crane for South Korea

Aircrane helicopter to be delivered to South Korea
Aircrane to be delivered to South Korea, Nov, 1, 2022. Erickson photo by pilot Brad Pepper.

This month Erickson Incorporated will deliver another Air Crane firefighting helicopter to the Korea Forest Service (KFS). The agency has at least half a dozen S-64 Air Crane helicopters.

In 2001, KFS became the first foreign government to purchase S-64 helicopters from Erickson. The recently delivered versions have composite main rotor blades and glass cockpits. Some of the S-64 helicopters in the KFS fleet have the optional front-mounted water cannon.

Aircrane helicopter to be delivered to South Korea
Aircrane to be delivered to South Korea, Nov, 1, 2022. Erickson photo by pilot Brad Pepper.

Air tanker crash in Italy kills two

Near Linguaglossa, Sicily

A CL-215/415 air tanker crash Italy
A CL-215/415 banks sharply just before contacting the ground. October 27, 2022.

A Canadair CL-215/415 crashed while dropping water on a wildfire on the slopes of the volcano Etna near Linguaglossa, Sicily, Italy today. Both pilots were killed.

It had just released its load, banked sharply to the right, then crashed into the ground.

The registration number of the aircraft was I-DPCN. It was part of a fleet of 19 CL-415s owned by the Dipartimento dei Vigili del Fuoco, del Soccorso Pubblico e della Difesa Civile (Department of firefighters, public rescue and civil defense) but operated by Babcock, the company that  provides the Canadair service in Italy as part of an outsourcing contract.

We send out our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers of the two pilots.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Mickey.