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USFS rookie rappellers overcome intense training to provide critical protection

Crews train for wildfire season in the Bitterroot
Rappelling Firefighters
Rappelling Firefighters
Rappelling Firefighters
Rappelling Firefighters
Posted at 9:03 AM, Jun 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 11:03:14-04

STEVENSVILLE — Imagine hanging upside down, ready to drop hundreds of feet, hoping your efforts can stop a devastating blaze and keep people safe.

For veteran US Forest Service rappel crews that's what summer means. But what about the rookies who try it for the first time? For specialized wildland firefighters, "commuting" means traveling across the country, a flight into the backcountry, and "dropping in" to real "remote work."

A few weeks ago we showed you how the veterans were training for the first time at Bass Creek in the Bitterroot. But we were curious what it was like for the rookies, so the USFS invited us back for a closer look, and to learn rappel crews want experience first, courage and caution -- yes, but smarts too.

"Independent, being able to think and operate. We operate in small groups, go many different directions," explained Andy Guest, Price Valley Rappel Crew Supervisor with the Payette National Forest. "And so being someone with that experience already on him and have that independence and conduct themselves.

Rappelling Firefighters

"It's a real dynamic environment. Our crew is actually 30 people, so you have to be able to get along with 30 people. But in the work environment, it's usually only two to four and we go in in a lot of different directions," Guest added.

Repetition is key. It's an "intense week" with mental focus and lots of pressure, leading up to that first drop.

"It's a really intense week. It's a lot of mental...you know the physical aspect was over, that was last week and the weeks coming up to this. But it's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of stuff to learn and get right. You know, perfectly. We train these guys throughout this week, so they're coming up today, and you know what they're doing is absolutely no errors," Guest said.

"We just don't have a lot of room for errors in the aircraft there, so there's a lot of pressure. A lot of nerves right now to get this first one out of the way. But to be honest with you, after the week that they've had, with the training going in for their first rappel."

Rappelling Firefighters

"Generally like you get out and you realize, like, you're standing on the skid before you even realize you're in the helicopter. Just 'cause they're so used to doing it so many times on the ground and in the tower, and those sorts of things," Guest continued.

"This is just like a really great training that the Forest Service puts on. Just to see them go. Like some people have never even ridden in the helicopter before in their life. And so yeah, to just go from that to your first time. You don't ever actually been land, you rappel out of it," Kootenai Repel Crew member Shannon Dones told MTN News.

While most of these rookie repellers are young men and women in their 20s, occasionally a more experienced firefighter will want to try his hand at learning this unique skill. Some have trained up into their 60s. And there are more women involved.

"Yeah, there's definitely going to be more women in fire, which is great to see, and just some pretty cool girls that are out there," Dones observed. "So yeah, it's good to see that presence now, and especially with aviation, you start to see more and more girls getting into that."

Rappelling Firefighters

They are all starting a career phase with variety.

"But it's a great avenue to of fire to get into. You get to do a lot of varied stuff from like being on remote fires like in wilderness areas, to being at large helio bases in California," Dones said. "So yeah, if you're a person that likes, just kind of never know what the day holds, I suppose."

"I mean, it's definitely a stressful and exciting experience all at the same time 'cause you practice a lot on the ground and towers before you do it. But it doesn't quite ever equalivate to once you're really up in the air and then you get the signal for the first time to go out to the skid," Domes said. "And you're like 'do I want to do that?' But, yeah, it's a lot of fun though too. It's a good feeling once you kind of accomplish that."

"It is pretty cool. You come over backwards and there'll be a minute there. You kind of see the rotors going over your head and then it's super relaxing actually," Guest added. "You get that signal and you know here you go. And then your feet come down and you're able to look down your rope and see what's ahead and start your rappel. But there is kind of a surreal moment if you will there while you're upside down checking things out."

I really enjoy it. I've been almost 20 years now that I've been rappelling and the repel aspect of it is pretty is cool, and it's fun for a while, Guest continued. "But what I really enjoy about it is having the tool and being able to to get to a lot of the places that we can and fill that niche and that job that we can."

Rappelling Firefighters

"I mean, there's a huge value in having these initial attack resources that can get to these more remote areas in a quick manner, because I mean everybody seeing how much larger fires are getting over the years now," Dones said. "So you can catch them when they're small. You know. A good thing for everybody around."

The rappel crews are critical to fighting the smaller, backcountry fires in the Bitterroot, Lolo and Flathead National Forests where that initial attack is key. Trainers say if people are interested in eventually becoming a rappelling firefighter they should start as a local wildland firefighter and work their way up.