Rappeller descending to a wildfire struggles with a tree

At the East Plum Fire in Colorado

(Revised at 6:39 p.m. MDT July 13, 2020.)

rappelling to the East Plum Fire in Colorado
Two firefighters rappelling to the East Plum Fire in Colorado. Screenshot from July 9, 2020 Denver 7 video.

A video shot from a helicopter on July 9, 2020 got good footage of two firefighters rappelling from a helicopter to initial attack the East Plum Fire about seven miles southwest of Larkspur, Colorado, south of Denver on the Pike & San Isabel National Forests.

It appeared to be routine at first. One of them landed safely on the ground, but the other appeared to have difficulty descending through a tree. Either the firefighter or the person’s rope, or both, apparently became entangled in the limbs of a fairly small tree about 15 feet off the ground. While the firefighter on the ground looked up and moved around, the hung-up firefighter was actively moving his or her arms around, perhaps trying to gather the rope below so it could be untangled and dropped again, so the rappel could be completed.

Rappelling East Plum Fire
Rappelling to the East Plum Fire in Colorado. One firefighter on the ground looks up at a second rappelling firefighter who appeared to encounter difficulty with a tree. Screenshot from July 9, 2020 Denver 7 video.

This went for about two and a half minutes before the firefighter made it to the ground, and all the while the helicopter was hovering. The view from the news helicopter’s camera was partially blocked at times, so I could not determine if the helicopter was maintaining tension on the rope, or if the weight of the firefighter was supported by the tree. But I imagine the pilot had to be very careful to not drag the firefighter up through the tree’s canopy. The rope and the firefighter possibly being entangled in the limbs could have made that inadvisable.

East Plum Fire
East Plum Fire. Screenshot from July 9, 2020 Denver 7 video.

A total of six firefighters rappelled into the fire which ultimately burned 0.3 acre. The next day, July 10, a hotshot crew hiked in, built and improved fireline around the fire, then hiked out. Six firefighters, possibly the six rappellers, spent two nights on the third of an acre fire and hiked out on July 11.

An air tanker dropped retardant on July 9 and a heavy helicopter assisted firefighters by dropping water on July 10.

The video can be seen on Facebook. The rappel begins at about 7:20.

More details about the East Plum Fire from the U.S. Forest Service.

We reached out to the Forest Service for more information, and received this from Lawrence Lujan, Regional Public Information Officer:

Rappelling into trees is common in steep, rugged and heavily wooded areas. Firefighters train regularly to handle such occurrences.  The Forest Service firefighter from Montana touched down safely with no injuries.

(Revised to add a quote from the US Forest Service received after initial publication)

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


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.

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!

Rappel academy hosts 110 participants at John Day, Oregon

Rappel training John Day Oregon

About 110 firefighters attended the Rappel training held at John Day, Oregon April 17-21. Four Bell 205’s were there: N510WW, N669H, N933CH, and N205DY.

These excellent photos were taken by Todd McKinley. Thanks Todd!

Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon

Salmon helibase supports Comet Fire

Salmon helibase

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.