Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. Mountain residents are all too familiar with the sound of helicopters thwomping overhead, with the sight of buckets sloshing water over their rims as they sway back and forth above the trees.
The choppers and buckets mean wildfire.
On Saturday morning, residents over the Winiger Ridge early were startled to see various kinds of helicopters darting back and forth over the hills and immediately began emailing their neighbors and calling the sheriff’s department. They were soon reassured that the choppers were out training for the upcoming fire season, working with local fire departments on strategy and coordination so they are ready to knock down wildfires before they can spread into disasters.
The Colorado National Guard and more than a dozen local, state and federal agency partners conducted helicopter-based fire suppression training in the past week at multiple locations. Bucket drops and aerial operations took place during daylight hours.
“The training is an integral part of our overall domestic response training,” said Colorado Army NationalGuard State Army Aviation Officer, Lt. Col Joshua Day. “We will use this exercise to qualify and validate our aircrews to ensure they are ready to respond to wild land fires. Integrating aircrews with ground personnel adds a dynamic and complex layer of realism.”
That layer of realism was exercised by local fire departments, including Nederland Fire Protection District and Timberline Fire Protection District. Mountain firefighters communicated with UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-46 Chinook and LUH-72 Lakota helicopters.
Timberline firefighter Rob Savoye was one of the mountain crew members who worked with helicopters dipping from Gross Reservoir. He explains that the crew marked an acre sized “fire” with yellow caution tape. Working as ground contact, firefighters directed the helicopters to drop the water as they came over the hill after filling their bucket.
Signaling with mirrors and orange plastic panels, the firefighters guided the choppers to the target.
“We might get different pilots for the drops, so we can’t assume they know where we are. Especially for a fake fire, it’s hard to see where we are on the ground; and we basically don’t want them to drop the water where we’re standing. We move once they confirm they see the location.”
Savoye says a few techniques are used: drop it all on a tree, or make a nice long line. The firefighters practice talking to the pilots in a concise and efficient manner. They give corrections to the drop formore drops. There is a series of specific radio communications which give directions that the firefighters learn.
When the wind comes up, Savoye says the pilots love the chance to see how the wind affects their drops.
“This was a really good training for all the firefighters and National Guard crews,” says Savoye. “This training is usually out of our local districts, so getting to do this in our district where we’ve fought fires before was very valuable.”
As locals learned during the Cold Springs Fire, helicopters are one of the best resources for fighting wild land fires, and the ground crews were able to work six different kinds to see how they performed differently.
Article originally published in the May 11, 2017 print edition of The Mountain-Ear newspaper.