Alberta shuts down their rappel program and closes up to 30 fire lookout towers

The reductions will affect 63 firefighters who may be moved to other units. One air tanker group will also be cut.

Alberta Firefighters
Alberta firefighters in 2016. Alberta Wildfire photo.

5:42 p.m. MST November 7, 2019

The Canadian province of Alberta is eliminating their helicopter rappel program. Due to budget woes throughout the province the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is reducing its expenses by 9 percent, which translates to $23 million less funding for Alberta Wildfire this year.

Rappelers respond to wildfires in helicopters and if there is no suitable landing zone upon arrival, descend to the ground on a rope while the helicopter hovers. The concept is to arrive at a fire very soon after its reported and aggressively attack the fire while small to keep it from becoming large and endangering communities and private property.

Below are excerpts from an article at Globalnews:

The Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — also known as the RAP program — has been in place for 36 years and employs 63 personnel each wildfire season.

According to [Minister Devin] Dreeshen, RAP firefighters spend only two per cent of the time rappelling from helicopters, and spend the rest of the time fighting wildfires on the ground — that played into the decision made in the budget.

“We found it’s better to utilize their ground work and that’s why we made the decision to have them on the ground fighting alongside the hundreds of other wildfire personnel that we have,” Dreeshen said.

According to the government, firefighters from the RAP program will be redeployed to different crews in Alberta Wildfire if they choose to return for the next wildfire season.

In 2016 Alberta had 64 four-person Helitack Crews, 2 eight-person Helitack Crews, 9 seven-person Rappel Crews, 8 twenty-person Unit Crews, and 35 eight-person Firetack Crews.

As part of the budget reduction between 15 and 30 of the province’s 127 wildfire lookout towers will no longer be staffed.

The province is also cutting their air tanker program, reducing the fleet from eight to seven air tanker groups. In 2014 there were nine air tanker groups, each consisting of an air tanker and an Air Attack Officer in a lead plane (or “Bird Dog”).

Alberta has never employed smokejumpers, or Parattack as they are called in British Columbia where they are based at Fort St. John and Mackenzie. The BC jumpers are occasionally used on fires in Alberta and Yukon.

In 2016 Alberta slashed their wildfire suppression budget by $15 million. One of the effects was cutting the tanker contracts from 123 to 93 days, saying goodby to the aircraft in mid-August.

The province had a very busy fire season this year, with a number of hand crews from the U.S. traveling north to lend a hand. In at least one location in Alberta last summer the peat moss was so dry that it turned to dust when disturbed, and in the presence of sufficient heat and oxygen was damn near explosive.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Video: rappelling into the Cascades

Rappelling in the Cascades! It doesn’t get any better than this for an aerial delivered firefighter! Packing out on the PCT!

A post shared by Central Oregon Rappellers (@centraloregonrappellers) on

Adam sent us the link to this Instagram video that was shot from a spotter’s perspective of two firefighters rappelling in the Cascade Range in central Oregon to work on a lightning-caused fire.

Thanks Adam!

Salmon helibase supports Comet Fire

Above: Heli-Rappellers at Salmon, Idaho just after they were transported back to the base by a helicopter after supporting the Comet Fire. L to R: Chris Lilley, Jacob Edluna, and Matt Knott.

Thursday we stopped by the U.S. Forest Service Helibase at the airport at Salmon, Idaho. Some of the 19 USFS personnel assigned to the base were supporting the 367-acre Comet Fire 12 miles north of the airport.

Salmon helibase
Eric Ellis, Helibase Manager at the Salmon Heli-Rappeller Base.
Eric Ellis, the Base Manager who was kind enough to show us around, said they saw the lighting strike that ignited the fire on July 26. Later four firefighters from the base rappelled into the steep terrain. The helibase crew also helped to facilitate helicopter water bucket work and sling loads of equipment.

Comet Fire
The Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho.
At the base on Thursday was one 205++ helicopter and one K-MAX helicopter. A second 205++ and a Sikorsky were away working on fires.

Salmon helibase
One of HeliMax’s 205++ helicopters lands at Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016 while supporting the Comet Fire north of Salmon.
Salmon is the home of the largest of the USFS rappel bases. They have two 205++ helicopters assigned that are each staffed seven days a week. The USFS is the only federal land management agency that has wildland firefighters who rappel into fires. The National Park Service has quite a few helitack personnel trained for short haul, the technique of transporting one or more people at the end of a rope attached to a helicopter, but without sliding down the rope.

Salmon helibase
A K-MAX helicopter at the Salmon Helibase July 28. An hour or so later it was dropping water on the Comet Fire
An hour or so after we photographed the K-MAX helicopter at the base, we saw the same ship dropping water on the Comet Fire.

K-MAX Comet Fire
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016.

Salmon helibase
After they were declared surplus by the military, the Salmon Heli-Rappellers obtained these pieces of helicopters and spent $10,000 each to have them configured exactly like the actual rappel ships in order to make their training as realistic as possible.
 

All photos are by Bill Gabbert

Currency training for heli-rappellers in Australia

The two Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) rappel firefighting crews at Ovens in Victoria, Australia undertook currency activities yesterday. They are part of the long-running Victorian rappel program which consists of two eight-member crews at both Ovens and Heyfield.

Rappel crews enable DELWP to rapidly access fires in the remote forest areas of Victoria where there are generally no clearings to land helicopters and road access takes many hours (if tracks exist at all).

For this reason, the rappel crews are used as first attack on bushfires.

As you can see in this clip, each firefighter individually abseils (or rappels) down a rope from a helicopter with a personal kit before a bag of firefighting equipment (hand tools such as rakehoes) is deployed.

Blue Mountain Rappellers

From the Blue Mountain Rappellers website:

“The Blue Mountain Rappel Crew is a 14-18 person crew of aerially delivered wildland firefighters. We host a Bell 205A++ Helicopter that can deliver 4 rappellers to remote areas anywhere in the nation that has the need. Formerly the Frazier Rappel Crew, the Blue Mountain Rappel Crew has recently moved locations from Ukiah OR, to La Grande OR in 2012. The Base is located at the La Grande airport near the Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center and the Union and La Grande IHC fire shops. The Base organization consist of a Base Manager, two Assistant Foremen, Two Squadleaders and Two permanent Senior Firefighters in addition to 6 to 10 seasonals. Since 1997 the crew has been delivering firefighters via ropes and helicopters to incidents around the country. As a National fire resource, we respond locally to Initial Attack in North East Oregon as well as mobilize to large fire support and Initial Attack in the lower 48 and Alaska.”

Blue Mountain Rappellers
Blue Mountain Rappellers, 2015. Photo provided by the crew.

Rappel training academy for firefighters

Rappel training in Salmon ID

About 80 rookies are going through the National Rappel Academy in Salmon, Idaho this week.

Below is an excerpt from an article at LocalNews8:

The National Rappel Academy in Salmon is one of a kind. For the fourth consecutive year veteran rappellers, who trained two weeks ago, are teaching nearly 80 rookies for a week in preparation of a busy summer season.

The rookies go through ground training before practicing from a tower that simulates a helicopter. A spotter, check spotter and rappeller all practice from the top of the deck.

Don Campbell, a specialist at the National Rappel Academy, has actual experience in every position. He said the future heli-rappellers will focus on the initial attack on wildfires.

Carrie Bond, a rookie from Iowa, said her week of training has been busy but exciting.

“It’s intimidating to look at the towers and look at the helicopters go up, but the crew here has been awesome,” said Bond. “I couldn’t ask for a better crew.”