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.
Twelve years after 13 smokejumpers were killed on the Mann Gulch Fire 13 miles north-northwest of Helena, Montana, 20 jumpers were entrapped on a fire in northern Idaho 83 miles southwest of Missoula, Montana.
It happened August 4, 1961 on the Higgins Ridge Fire in the Nez Perce National Forest after an eight-man crew from Grangeville, Idaho had jumped in the area, followed by 12 men from the Missoula jumper base, the last arriving at 1 p.m. The fire behavior on the two-acre fire was fairly benign until a passing cold front brought a sudden increase in the wind at 4:15 p.m. which resulted in the fire spreading rapidly. The 20 men took refuge in a previously burned area. 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 ashes.
Lightning was bursting from the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire as the men in their newly issued orange fire shirts covered their heads with their arms when the fire burned around them. They helped each other swat out the flames on their clothes during the ember shower.
They did not hear it because of the roar of the fire, but they looked up and saw the red skids of a helicopter. It was a Bell 47B-3 that had seating for three people abreast, with the pilot in the middle.
Below is an excerpt from the April, 1994 edition of “The Static Line” published by the National Smokejumper Association:
…The pilot was Rod Snider of the Johnson Flying Service and he had spotted the men and their orange [fire shirts].
Fritz and Snider quickly organized an evacuation plan. Snider had to drop down vertically and take off the same way because of old snags surrounding the jumpers [a maneuver that requires more power than departing from a ridge]. On the first few trips Rod took out two jumpers on each run, having them ride in the cabin. Then, with the helicopter getting hotter, Rod told them he would take four out on each trip. Two rode in the cabin and two hung on to the [cargo trays]. Rod was able to ferry all 20 jumpers to the Freeman Ridge fire camp. Fritz and Tom were among those on the last trip out.
Some of the jumpers were treated at St. Patricks’s Hospital for smoke-burned eyes. Within several days most of the jumpers who had been on the Higgins Ridge Fire were out jumping on more fires.
In June, 2019 a reunion was held in Missoula for the firefighters that were involved in the Higgins Ridge Fire. Eleven of the jumpers gave oral interviews and participated in a panel discussion at the National Museum of Forest Service History (video of the panel). Mr. Snider made the trip and gave his oral history, but unfortunately had to return home the night before the panel discussion due to a family emergency.
Below are excerpts from an article in The Missoulian, August 2, 2019:
“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.
“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.
What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.
“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”
His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened “Red Legs” for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.
“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.
The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.
In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho, successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.
The year was 1961 when cumulus clouds built up every afternoon promising rain, but delivering isolated dry lightning storms. This was the year before I became a smokejumper. It was my second year to work on the Moose Creek District of the Nezperce National Forest. The preceding summer I had spent as a lookout fireman on top of Bailey Mountain. This year I had been working trail crew for a couple of months until the sky erupted at the end of July and left fires all over the district.
My trail partner (Ron) and I had been cutting a trail from the Selway River to Big Rock Mountain and were currently holed up in a cabin there when a helicopter picked us up to transport us to a small fire on Higgins Ridge. We were to meet a crew walking in from Elbow Bend on East Moose Creek. We saw smokejumpers parachute into the fire area on our way to the fire. We landed on the uphill side of the fire, grabbed our shovels and pulaskis and started for the fire. We could see the jumpers’ orange shirts through the smoke.
Before we could get to the fire a large cumulous cloud covered the sun and the wind picked up to 25 or 30 m.p.h. The fire blew up in our faces, and we were forced to retreat back into a large rockslide.
The jumpers weren’t so lucky. They were trapped in the middle of it with no escape route. They dug in, buried their faces in wet bandanas in the dirt, and tried to find air to breath as the fire roared from a manageable 2 acres to a 1280 acre holocaust. It was late evening, and the fire was beautiful to watch. It was crowning, and trees several hundred feet ahead of the fire would begin to tremble and then burst into flame like a fireworks display.
The fire was so hot that canteens of water near the jumpers started exploding. When things looked at their bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Rod Snider(NCSB-51) in a Bell 47G-3B helicopter from Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula. It was getting dark when he flew into the middle of the fire and started bringing Jumpers out four at a time, which is two more than the maximum the copter was supposed to carry. He had two guys on the seat and two more on the runners. He made five trips into the fire and rescued twenty jumpers. The manifold pressure on the copter engine was 200% above maximum, and when the engine was torn down later, two pistons fell apart. I heard that “Crash” received 20 cases of beer the next week.
My trail partner and I stayed on the fire through mop-up. The other crew arrived without tools, which were to be dropped in by air. Unfortunately, communications left something to be desired. We kept requesting tools and instead received three separate drops of sleeping bags. Each person had a half dozen sleeping bags, but Ron and I were the only ones who had a shovel and pulaski to work on the fire. So we did.
When the tools finally arrived and we got the fire under control, I walked down to the area where the jumpers had been trapped. I found exploded water cans, unexploded gasoline cans (go figure), and a personal gear bag with all their cameras melted together. I could see Minolta, Canon, and Nikon logos on the fused metal and glass. I sent the lot back to Missoula. The fire had been so hot that there were no snags, just pointed stumps and ashes over a foot deep.
I remember two of the rescued jumpers departed the chopper and immediately asked for a cigarette. Now that’s a habit!
I’ve always wondered what that fire looked like from the other side. If anyone reads this that remembers, let me know.
The group that organized the oral history and panel about the Higgins Ridge Fire was organized by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Wildfire Today first wrote about the museum in 2009 five years after they began their effort to raise $10.6 million to build a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres west of the Missoula airport where they hope to build a 30,000 square-foot building.
The museum’s fund drive received a significant boost this month when it received a $2 million contribution from the estate of Bill Cannon, a Forest Service retiree.
From the Ravalli Republic:
…Cannon spent most of his Forest Service years in California and Oregon, with an interlude in Hawaii where he was assigned to state and private forestry work. He finished his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked on program planning for the Forest Service’s state and private programs.
Meanwhile, according to a press release announcing his gift, he used his avocation of studying financial markets to become an adept investor.
Cannon became impressed with the National Museum of Forest Service History on a field trip to the site while in Missoula for the 2000 U.S. Forest Service retiree reunion.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
The Horse Butte Fire has burned 9,400 acres approximately 18 miles northwest of Aberdeen, Idaho. The lightning-caused fire has been moving actively through brush and tall grass. Firefighters are expecting to have it contained by the end of the day on Monday.
The photo below shows a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, Tanker 912, dropping on the fire.
On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The reports at the time was that it failed after takeoff, but in this video that just came to light filmed by Harold Komm, Jr. it appears that the incident occurred during takeoff while the aircraft was approximately half or two-thirds of the way down the runway. At 0:52 in the video below, smoke or debris can be seen in the vicinity of the tail of the aircraft. Then the engine noise decreases as the takeoff continued. When it finally became airborne dust is kicked up at the end of the runway.
The flight crew deserves high praise for getting the plane into the air and then landing safely. An engine failure at that point is one of the worst times for it to happen.
The aircraft was Air Tanker 101, an MD87 operated by Erickson Aero Air. Mr. Komm said that after takeoff the plane flew out to the designated retardant jettison area about seven miles northeast of the airport so it would not have to land with a full load of retardant.
Seven fires were discovered after the incident within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.
Mr. Komm said he just recently found a report of the incident on Fire Aviation and offered to allow us to publish his video. We had to edit the audio to remove some unwanted background noise unrelated to the aircraft, but other than that and adding titles at the beginning and the end we didn’t change the video. He told us, “I had talked to Erickson Aero Air HQ in Oregon to make sure it was ok for me to distribute and the only thing was that I had to forward a copy of the video to the lead mechanic. I got some cool swag from Erickson Aero Air for being in the right place and time doing the video.”
You know what they say about any landing you can walk away from……
That is what 79-year old John Gregory of McCall, Idaho did after his Piper Cub PA-18 crashed on top of a 60-foot white fir tree east of McCall Monday night. He had to be extracted from the plane and lowered to the ground by firefighters, but after his feet were firmly on top of snow at the base of the tree, he walked away uninjured.
Mr. Gregory had taken off at Challis and was intending to land at the McCall Airport but the plane lost power.
There are a number of facts about this story that are interesting other than the obvious… the plane somewhat intact at the top of the tree. (A piece of a prop and one wheel fell to the ground.)
The Valley County Sheriff’s Office said authorities were notified three ways about the accident at around 8:42 p.m.:
A SPOT locater activation.
US Air Force Rescue Command received notice of an unregistered EPIRB activation.
Mr. Gregory called 911 on his cell phone, saying he had just crashed his plane and he was stuck in the trees in the air.
The Sheriff’s Office and McCall Fire and EMS responded into the snowy mountains on snowmobiles and a local resident brought Sno-Cat. Two helicopters were dispatched, one from Two Bear Air and an air ambulance from Boise, but it was feared that the rotor wash would dislodge the plane, so it was all on the shoulders of the ground-based personnel.
It was dark so they worked with flashlights and lights from the Sno-Cat.
When I first heard about this accident, a plane and a victim stuck in the top of a tree, I thought that since it was near the McCall Smokejumper Base, a jumper was going to climb the tree and rescue the pilot, since they are trained in tree climbing to retrieve parachutes.
But, one of the McCall volunteer firefighters, Randy Acker, is an arborist and owner of Acker Tree Service. He offered to scale the tree, the Idaho Statesman reported. I checked, and Mr. Acker is not a smokejumper.
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Idaho Statesman. And keep in mind — it was well after dark.
[McCall Fire Captain Brandon] Swain said seven people on the ground watched the tree carefully as Acker climbed it, cutting limbs with a chainsaw as he ascended. He stopped cutting about 20 feet from the top.
“We were nervous,” Swain said. “The majority of the limbs at the top were helping support that plane.”
There was no way to know how hard the plane hit the tree or whether the tree was seriously compromised. But the plane didn’t budge while Acker worked to get the pilot out, Swain said.
Acker secured the plane to the tree with rope webbing. He then got the pilot into a safety harness so he could be lowered to the ground. Jordan Ockunzzi and Swain helped Gregory down through a process called belaying.
The Sheriff’s Office is not releasing the exact location of the incident, and is asking the public to avoid the area since a gust of wind could cause the aircraft to crash, again, this time to the ground.
After being delayed by the partial government shutdown the Bureau of Land Management has completed a large reseeding project in Idaho. The agency treated 52,000 acres of land that burned in wildfires during the last two years including portions of the 99,502-acre Grassy Ridge fire northwest of St. Anthony and other fires near Atomic City and Menan Buttes. Helicopters and fixed wing planes dispersed the seed.
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Idaho State Journal:
Experts on the subject say the best time to reseed is when there’s snow on the ground.
“If you have a sunny day when you’re applying, the seed will heat up and melt below the snow layer,” Ben Dyer, BLM fire ecologist, said. “You try to have it put down when a storm is predicted in the near future so you can cover it up with another layer of snow.”
If all goes well, the snow melts in spring and provides the seeds with wet soil to germinate and flourish. There is currently 6 to 8 inches of snow on most of the ground where the Grassy Ridge Fire occurred last summer, Dyer said. Dyer said the hope is that grass and sagebrush seed will establish itself before cheatgrass does and also help prevent soil erosion.
“We include a mixture of native grasses and forbs and we also have some introduced (seeds) that are a little more aggressive at choking out and competing against cheatgrass,” he said. “In the event that our native components don’t do well, at least we have that non-native component that has a little bit better chance.”
Above: Air Tanker 101, showing the added external tank, December 12, 2017 at Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(Originally published at 8:38 p.m. MDT August 1, 2018; updated at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018)
An engine malfunctioned on an air tanker operated by Erickson Aero Air July 30 after taking off from the Coeur d’Alene Airport in Idaho. A person we talked with at the airport said they heard a very loud “boom” as the engine failed, and said the aircraft was an MD-87 air tanker. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that contracts for the large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, confirmed Wednesday evening that “an Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 did have an engine upset shortly after takeoff from the Coeur d’Alene Airport on Monday at approx. 1430 PDT”. He said the aircraft landed safely after the incident.
The Coeur d’Alene Post Falls Press reported that unofficial sources have told them that hot debris from an air tanker engine started multiple fires after the pieces fell to the ground north of the airport. They also wrote that the runway was closed while “unspecified debris” was removed. The newspaper was not able to find any government officials who would comment about the cause of the fires, saying it was under investigation.
Kootenai County Government reported on their Facebook page that “several small fires resulted from an aircraft incident” at the airport.
(UPDATE at 6:16 a.m. PDT August 2, 2018: Late yesterday Jim Lyon, Deputy Fire Marshal/Public Information Officer with Northern Lakes Fire District, issued a statement confirming that a jet-powered air tanker under contract to the U.S. Forest Service, at approximately 2:30 p.m. “had mechanical problems on take-off and was able to make an immediate circle route to return to base safely. In so doing, it appears the plane was discharging some sort of material as a result of the mechanical problem, starting several fires throughout the area approximately a five mile radius of the airport.” Marshal Lyon said “up to eight fires” started by the incident were under control by the evening of July 30th.)
Below is an excerpt from a July 31 article in the Spokesman Review about the incident:
Jim Lyons, spokesman for Northern Lakes Fire District, said crews battled about seven fires, though none grew to the size of a major wildfire. The first blazes started about 2 p.m. and spread from there.
Shoshana Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in North Idaho, said the fires burned to the northwest, south and east of the airport near U.S. Highway 95. She said they burned mostly grass and brush and were not affecting structures. As of 3:30 p.m., no structures had been lost.
Multiple aircraft were sent in to drop retardant on the blazes, but firefighters weren’t sure early Monday afternoon how large the fires had grown.
KXLY reported that a firefighter was injured while working on one of the fires near the airport:
A Kootenai County Fire and Rescue firefighter was injured Monday evening when he was struck by a vehicle that was backing up on Dodd Road by Strayhorn while responding to fires burning near the Coeur d’Alene Airport. He was evaluated at the scene. His injuries were not life threatening, but he was transported to Kootenai Health as a precaution.
The airport resumed normal operation at about 6:30 p.m. Monday.
We were not able to find a SAFECOM report about the incident, and very few people are willing to talk about it. Our calls to personnel at Erickson Aero Air late in the afternoon August 1 either were not returned right away or the employees we talked with were not able to comment.