Crews train to battle wildfires by air with helicopters

This season, Chelan County Fire District 1 expects to have its own helicopter fully trained to help fight wildfires, which adds to the state's fleet of nine helicopters, about half of which participated in training at the Cle Elum Airport.

The Cle Elum airport became a staging ground for helitack training for the Washington State Deparrtment of Resources Wednesday.  

DNR grew its fleet to eight helicopters last season, and this season has added an additional two pilots. 

"Helitack" means using helicopters and their crews to attack fires. During fire season, helicopters and crews, which include firefighters, are based around the state close to where fire weather meteorologists say fire risk is elevated. The idea is to fly them to the fire in 20 to 30 minutes, deploy on the ground, and begin containing the fire. The helicopter can then go back up equipped with a bucket and drop water directly onto the fires path.  

The training is also designed to better integrate local fire districts into the fire fight.  

Chelan County Fire District 1 says it is the only fire district in the state with its own helicopter, a former U.S. Army UH1 "Huey." While Chelan 1 has had the aircraft for three seasons, this is the first where it will have a full complement of three pilots fully trained for the complexities of fighting fire by air.   

"We’re working together much better," said Chelan County Fire District 1 spokesperson Rick Isaacson. "When we go to a fire, when DNR goes to a fire, we go all together. "

The more complete integration of wildfire training and cooperation between the state and local fire districts began last year with a  $13 million investment  from the state. The training also set up a series of fire academies around Washington to provide more training for all forms of wildland firefighting.

The project was set up by former Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark following back-to-back record fire seasons in 2014 and 2015. Under new commissioner Hilary Franz a request is still pending before the legislature requesting money to keep the the integrated training going.

The state added more helicopters and firefighters to staff them as the competition for aerial resources throughout the west has increased.  

The question this year is will Washington and the west get a break? Despite record winter rains on the west side of Washington, that rain on both sides has grown a bumper crop of grass and other plants that quickly dry into kindling once they dry out.

© 2017 KING-TV


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