The Central Oregon Rappellers are a 27-person initial attack crew hosted by the Ochoco National Forest in Prineville, Oregon. As one of twelve helicopter rappel crews in the U.S. Forest Service, we specialize in the aerial delivery of firefighters to remote wildfires inaccessible by ground forces, especially in forested, mountainous terrain lacking adequate helispots. In addition to our primary responsibility as an IA resource, we are capable of performing the full range of logistical and aviation duties of a conventional helitack program.
Our aircraft platforms include a National Type 2 rappel helicopter and a Type 3 helitack helicopter. Each summer, our crew and aircraft provide IA capability and logistical support to incidents within our local unit in Central Oregon and neighboring National Forests and National Parks. The crew also pre-positions across the country for initial attack and high-priority wildfires. Our firefighters are active within multiple Incident Management Teams as Operations Section Chief, Division Group Supervisor, Air Operation Branch Director, Air Support Group Supervisor, and Helibase Manager.
We are based at the Prineville Airport, which is centrally located within our multi-agency home unit, Central Oregon Fire Management Service (COFMS). Our response area therefore includes a diverse range of fuel types, from the dry grasslands and prairies of central and eastern Oregon to the dense, coniferous forests of the Cascade Crest. On any given day, we could wind up swatting out miles of fireline in the John Day River canyon, or calling in bucket drops on a torching hemlock along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Helicopter rappelling is a special capability practiced by a small minority of the country's helitack crews. The technique allows us to quickly and efficiently insert firefighters into areas without adequate landing zones, typically for initial attack of remote wildfires, but occasionally for special missions such as helispot construction or medical response. We rappel with enough gear to be self-sufficient for three operational periods, enough time for as few as two rappellers to contain, control, and call "out" a previously unstaffed wildfire.
In order to ensure cross-program standardization, all twelve rappel crews train their rookies and recertify their veterans annually at consolidated rappel training sessions. Each rappel program operates according to the National Rappel Operations Guide (NROG), which allows a rappeller from any base to seamlessly fill in with another program. The rappel community is small and well-connected, with fewer than 300 qualified rappellers operating in any given year.
All forms of wildland firefighting are physically demanding, but rappelling presents unique challenges requiring an extremely high degree of fitness for each crewmember. After suppressing a remote wilderness fire, the rappellers -- sometimes as few as two -- must pack all of their ropes, rappel harnesses, flight helmets, line gear, chainsaws, hand tools, and other equipment out from the fire to the nearest road for pickup. These hikes often stretch 8-10 miles over rugged, off-trail terrain, and each rappeller will routinely pack 110+ pounds of gear. When it might just be you and one other rappeller out there, both of you must be absolutely confident in the other's ability to pull his or her weight.
For this reason, all new hires are required to satisfactorily complete a five-week rookie training program. This program combines intense physical fitness training, such as exhausting hikes, runs, calisthenics, and other workouts, with mentally demanding leadership exercises, medical scenarios, critical decisionmaking situations, and more. Candidates must prove they have the mental and physical ability to operate effectively in the firefighting environment of the helicopter rappeller.
A TYPICAL SUMMER
There is no typical summer! The work assignment for any given rappeller can vary tremendously. Typically, most employees will be assigned daily to staff the Type 2 helicopter as a rappeller, or the Type 3 helicopter as a helitack crewmember. As a National resource, the rappel platform may be stationed at our home helibase in Prineville, or it may be moved to a higher priority area -- such as supporting a large incident, or providing staffing to a district experiencing severe fire danger. In these situations, the crew will follow the aircraft wherever it is assigned.
Numerous other opportunities become available each summer. Crewmembers regularly receive off-forest assignments to work on training positions such as Crew Boss, Task Force Leader, Helicopter Manager, etc. Within COFMS, there are opportunities to fill in with local resources, including the Redmond and Prineville Hotshots, the Northwest Regulars Type 2-IA crews, or on the district engine program. The twelve rappel programs also "boost" each other, lending crewmembers from one base to another during times of high activity, so we get a chance to work with our colleagues at other bases.
In sum, each rappeller's summer will be different from the others. The flexibility inherent in our program allows us to support each employee's training priorities and career development plans. It strengthens the program tremendously to have a diversity of experiences on the crew.