Getting the drop on wildfires: Kaibab Forest helitack gets a jump on wildfire season

Pittman Valley Helitack crew on Kaibab National Forest has already responded to several wildfires this season. The crew includes Cole Orozco, Bradley Castle, Grayson Beckley, Ernie Tilley, Jacob Maldonado, Nick Paris, Anne Paya and Neil Schalk (not pictured).  (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

Pittman Valley Helitack crew on Kaibab National Forest has already responded to several wildfires this season. The crew includes Cole Orozco, Bradley Castle, Grayson Beckley, Ernie Tilley, Jacob Maldonado, Nick Paris, Anne Paya and Neil Schalk (not pictured). (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

A yellow Bell 407 helicopter rests on the ground in an open valley surrounded by dense ponderosa trees. A few green trucks are parked outside, but the area is quiet and still except for a bright orange windsock waving in the wind.

The windsock is a clue that the atmosphere at the base can change in an instant. The men and women at the base are part of the Pittman Valley Helitack crew, a specialized firefighting operation on Kaibab National Forest that is prepared to launch at moment’s notice at the onset of wildland fire.

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The Pittman Valley Helitack crew is based out of Kaibab National Forest. The crew includes: Cole Orozco, Bradley Castle, Grayson Beckley, Ernie Tilley, Jacob Maldonado, Nick Paris, Anne Paya and Neil Schalk (not pictured).

May and June are the most critical months for fire in northern Arizona. The summer brings more people into the woods, which increases risks of accidental fire starts.

The monsoon season typically arrives at the beginning of July, which often puts a damper on the fire season, but the persistent drought and exceptionally dry winter have put wildland fire managers on edge.

“Until the monsoons we’re on heightened alert,” said Bob Blasi, fire information officer for the Kaibab.

The seven-member specially trained firefighting crew is transported into remote and rugged areas by helicopter to fight wildfires. They are an important part of the USFS wildland fire program because they can get to remote wildfires while they are small and provide a safer, more efficient way to suppress fires before they grow larger.

The crew began their contract season May 1 with a week of intensive training as they honed their skills for the upcoming fire season.

“There’s a week or so in there of mandatory training we like to get done before we truly go available nationally,” said Cole Orozco, program manager of the Pittman Valley Helitack.

The Pittman Valley crew is just one of 12 exclusive-use helitack operations in Region 3, which includes western Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, according to Orozco.

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The Pittman Valley Helitack crew is based out of Kaibab National Forest.

“There’s not a whole lot of us within the region,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service contracts with private companies to provide helicopters, and the helicopter comes with its own pilot and mechanic as part of the contract.

The helitack squad is often the first on the scene of a wildfire. When requested by the duty officer, the crew will fly out to check on a reported smoke or fire and do a size-up. When they arrive, they identify the type of fire, type of fuel available to the fire and the terrain where the fire is located.

“It really depends on the duty officer in charge of our zone for the day, their comfort level and the location of the fire,” Orozco said.

The helitack crew also provides large fire support by helping firefighters such as hotshot crews, engines crews and other Type 2 hand crews on the ground, he said.

In addition to on the ground fire suppression, the crew often flies members of the incident management team on reconnaissance flights for intelligence gathering. Depending on the needed tactics, the crew might be asked to do aerial ignitions to burn out and get the fire closer to the containment lines, Orozco said.

“We do aerial ignitions in areas that are either too vast or too dangerous,” Orozco said. “Or we can put people in on the ground.”

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The helitack crew prepares to depart for the Buzzard Fire in New Mexico May 24. (Photo/USFS)

The Bell 407 can carry four to five passengers depending on the weight restrictions and loads. The firefighters carry gear such as line packs, chainsaws, tools and food and water.

“We do a load calculation every morning based on the altitude we are expected to fly and the temperature for the day,” said Bradley Castle, assistant program manager. “The pilot comes up with the number and amount we can carry.”

The crew stays busy during down times by exercising and completing projects at the base.

“We have a diligent program doing stuff on the ground, going through the reps daily so it’s all second nature,” Castle said.

Orozco, who is a year-round employee at Kaibab National Forest, spends the winter with other employees on forest work objectives and fire prevention projects such as thinning and prescribed fire projects.

The helitack season continues through the end of July. The crew members work daily with the contract pilot and mechanic during the heart of fire season.

“The (Kaibab) doesn’t own any helicopters, so that’s where the contract comes in,” Orozco said. “That’s why it’s short term.”

Last year the helitack crew had a slower season with less fire activity. They spent 18 days on the Boundary Fire in Coconino National Forest and flew on a few smaller fires in the area. They also fought a fire in Peach Springs and then spent the remainder of their season on a fire in Montana that lasted from mid-July to mid-September.

This year, the crew has responded to the Facility Fire in Flagstaff and is currently working on the Buzzard Fire in New Mexico.

Base history

According to Kaibab National Forest history, the Pittman Valley Helitack crew was founded in 1972 on a call-when-needed basis. No permanently assigned crew members existed from 1972 to 1976. In 1976, Kaibab Helitack became a full-time seasonal crew of seven. The crew was based at Green Base in Pittman Valley, eight miles east of Williams along Interstate 40, where it continues to be based today.

In 1992, Kaibab Helitack became a rappel crew and first rappelled out of a Bell 206L Long Ranger, a light helicopter that is no longer approved for rappel missions. In 2004, the crew switched to a Bell 407 light helicopter. In 2008, because of changes in policy, the Pittman Valley Helitack crew suspended the rappelling portion of the program.

More information for those interested in learning more about becoming a wildland firefighter is available at www.fs.fed.us/working-with-us/jobs/fire or www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxJFIfkOQLY.

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