Crews prep for wildfire season 

Pemberton Fire Zone crews take to helicopters as the fire hazard rating creeps up

click to enlarge Practicing perfectAn instructor teaches a wildfire fighter how to exit a hovering helicopter.Photo BY cathryn Atkinson
  • Practicing perfectAn instructor teaches a wildfire fighter how to exit a hovering helicopter.Photo BY cathryn Atkinson

The firefighting crews of the Pemberton Fire Zone, which includes Whistler, are gearing up for a busy season, training, checking equipment, reconnecting with old comrades and saying hello to new ones.

They know the fires won't be waiting for an invitation to ignite in the Sea to Sky region's forests and wilderness areas.

And as a case in point, Toni Large, a forest protection technician with the Pemberton Fire Zone — the woman charged with ensuring I don't walk into a helicopter tail rotor while watching training exercises — makes a hasty, apologetic retreat in the middle of our interview.

She returns after 20 minutes, saying she had to find out more about a new fire in the Hope Fire Zone, over the mountains but not far away as the fire teams fly. It's relatively quiet for the moment and the training can continue.

We're up the road from Pemberton airport, at the forestry service's firebase, watching 40 men and four women practice exiting hovering helicopters in a nice, flat field.

The reality in the coming days will be somewhat different, with these people being called on to make up "Initial Attack" teams who jump into all sorts of terrain, including mountain slopes and rocky terrain, to battle wildfires.

A three-person Initial Attack crew ensures the area is clear of debris in case other firefighters are dropped in behind them. The whole concept is to "hit hard, hit fast" before a fire gains in size. They will be dropped into an area to assess the fire and then fight it themselves or send for support.

In order to perform a hover exit from a helicopter, crews must be certified as it is considered a high-risk activity.

In Friday's exercise (May 11), three helicopters are in use — a pilot and instructor sit up front, and two trainees are in the back. The rest of us watch, with other trainees waiting their turn. The air is thick with fluffy dandelion seeds stirred up by the rotor blades.

As the chopper rises about five metres off the ground, the trainees slide one-by-one through the landing skids beneath the aircraft, ending up suspended in midair below the fuselage of the helicopter and using the bottom of the chopper's cabin doorframe to hold on tight. They must exit on the opposite side to the pilot in order to ensure the helicopter stays balanced.

The pilot brings the helicopter closer to the grass so it is a short drop for each firefighter. In a few cases, the firefighter's feet actually touch the ground as the hands still hold on, with the illusory effect of making it seem like the firefighter is actually holding up the helicopter.

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