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Forest Service rappel crews key to stopping small fire growth

USFS Rappellers 2022
USFS Rappel Training 2022
USFS Rappel Train 2022
Posted at 4:12 PM, Apr 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-27 10:24:14-04

Although they are flying to hotter, larger fires, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) rappel crews are still the key to a fast attack on smaller, lightning-caused fires — and that's critical here with longer, hotter summers.

It's back to the Bitterroot this spring for the firefighting rappel teams of the Forest Service, with crews from Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California returning to the Ruffatto Ranch near Stevensville to sharpen their skills.

"It's bittersweet because it means it's time to go to work, but every year that seems to get a little earlier and earlier," firefighter Amanda Johnson told MTN News. She's back from Central Oregon with the Malheur Rappel Team.

USFS Rappel Training 2022

"But it's important that we do this training really early on before fire season is here. That way we've got a lot of successful repels under our belt and have the procedure down correctly 'cause it's got to be done correctly every single time."

And every single time means a big difference for local residents too. Since the "big fire" season of 2017, the rappel teams have dropped into dozens and dozens of smaller fires across the West, keeping these lightning-strike backcountry blazes from exploding into a much larger problem.

On the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) alone over the past five years, the rappel teams have hit an average of three-backcountry fires, putting in four rappellers who've worked fires for three-to-seven days before mule teams are sent in to recover them, and their equipment.

USFS Rappellers 2022
A rappeller gets a safety check before boarding the helicopter.

Additionally, BNF has hosted 15-rappellers in Stevensville for 20-day shifts the past few summers, placing the teams where they can respond to fires on the Bitterroot, Lolo, Nez Peace-Clearwater, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests.

"I think it's important from every firefighter standpoint, mainly from a fire manager standpoint, for us to offer them diverse delivery methods. And you can see that throughout our fleet of aerial delivered firefighters," said Beau Dobberstein, a National Helicopter Specialist for the USFS.

The repellers told MTN News that with the hotter, drier summers and more intense fires, it's affecting their planning and their training. Johnson says that means larger teams are being deployed in some cases.

USFS Rappel Train 2022

"Those smaller fires are fewer and farther between. Where we can drop multiple loads of repellers onto larger fires with almost the same intent, which is kind of new, but the drier conditions are presenting challenges that were forced to adapt."

"So we're seeing our training season starting a little bit earlier. Our guys and gals running in the season later into the year, October, November is becoming quite typical for these folks," Dobberstein explained.

It's not something every firefighter can handle. But for those that can adapt, Johnson said it can be one of the most challenging, and helpful assignments.

"Firefighting is hard in general, but this has some added complexity on either end because your delivery system to the fire is a lot more complex. There's a lot more that goes into it. So I really enjoyed the challenge, especially like, fear of heights. Things like that actually come into play here. And so for me, it's an opportunity to do something I wouldn't normally do and challenge myself in a really unique way. - Firefighter Amanda Johnson

Last week wrapped up training for the veterans, with the rookie class returning to the site near Bass Creek next week.