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Siskiyou Rappellers prepare for lightning strike

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A crew of firefighters who rappel from helicopters geared up for practice Thursday morning in anticipation of lightning storms forecast for Friday.

One of the newest crew members, Scott McIntyre — a rookie rappeller — said if the crew goes two weeks without working on an active fire, then they practice at the Siskiyou Rappel base at the Grants Pass airport to stay sharp.

Another recruit this year, Eric Parrinello, said everything goes very quickly when the crew is dispatched. He said the rappellers are up in the air in 10 minutes or less from the time a call comes in.

Their specialty is stamping out small, remote fires before they can spread.

“We’re doing our job correctly if you don’t hear about us or the fire,” Parrinello said.

He said having a rappelling crew in Southern Oregon is extremely beneficial because there’s a lot of forest land that’s steep and nearly impossible to get to with a vehicle. The rappellers can slip in between the trees and attack a fire before it has time to spread to even harder-to-reach locations.

Parrinello explained that in the firefighting world smoke jumpers, who parachute out of airplanes, are the top dogs. But sometimes rappellers can squeeze into tight spots the smokejumpers can’t reach because of their parachutes, McIntyre said.

Up to four rappellers can travel to a fire in a helicopter. Depending on the size of the fire, two to four firefighters will rappel down from about 200 to 300 feet, then radio back to the rest of the crew for supplies and/or backup.

Once a fire is extinguished, the crew on the ground has to pack out all of the supplies, so physical fitness is a high priority. Trainees have to pass intensive physical tests to be certified, and they have to maintain their fitness throughout the year.

Both Parrinello and McIntyre have five years of wildland firefighting experience and wanted to take their careers to the next level. They said their experience with the crew so far this summer has been worth it, and that their crew is filled with driven individuals ready to work.

A lot of work goes on behind the scenes in preparation for fighting wildfires, Parrinello explained. Firefighters monitor lightning activity — which is normally at a Level 1 — and when it reaches Level 2, the crews prep for fire.

Friday’s lightning level is forecast to be at Level 4, which is extremely high.

He said all the air crews in the district are stationed at the Siskiyou Rappel base readying for potential lightning strikes. Plenty of hand crews are stationed strategically throughout the forests right now as well.

“We’re here and we’re ready for it,” Parrinello said.

He said there’s no guarantee that crews will be able to control whatever fires start, but resources are available and at the ready. Fires inevitably start in areas difficult to reach, but the crews are ready to tackle what they can.

There are only 13 rappel crews in the nation, and they’re fairly concentrated in the Pacific Northwest.

All certified rappellers are trained at the National Rappeller Academy in Salmon, Idaho, and they can make only a certain number of mistakes during the “rookie week” of training before they are disqualified, McIntyre said.

He said rappellers can’t afford to make mistakes in the field.

Parrinello said he went through five weeks of training at the base in Grants Pass before his week of rookie training in Idaho. Very soon after he joined the Siskiyou crew, he was dispatched to a fire near Klamath Falls.

When the crew isn’t working an active fire, it trains for rappelling and firefighting, performs maintenance at the crew base, works on physical fitness and performs routine smoke searches over forest land.

The Siskiyou Rappellers cover a huge amount of forest land in the Rogue-Siskiyou National forest but can work in much of Oregon and Washington.

Parrinello said sometimes the public asks why firefighters aren’t putting out the fires or make claims that they’re not doing enough, but he said they do what they can and work in a lot of ways that aren’t seen by outsiders.

“Aerial firefighting is often overlooked, but that’s how you know we’re doing our jobs right,” Parrinello said.

He said the crews are ready for any lightning strikes that come with the predicted storm and will do everything in their power to contain any fires that start.

“Ironically, Friday is Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday,” Parrinello said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Siskiyou Rappellers helicopter lifts away during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSiskiyou Rappellers firefighters make their way back to the pad during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Siskiyou Rappellers practice procedures on ground at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Siskiyou Rappellers practice procedures on ground at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters begin descending from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Siskiyou Rappellers practice procedures on ground at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters begin descending from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe helicopter of the Siskiyou Rappellers lifts up for training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters begin descending from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Siskiyou Rappellers practice procedures on ground at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe helicopter of the Siskiyou Rappellers prepares to lift up for training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe helicopter of the Siskiyou Rappellers fires up for training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA Siskiyou Rappeller firefighter heads out of the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe helicopter of the Siskiyou Rappellers fires up for training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA pair of Siskiyou Rappellers firefighters descend from the helicopter during training at the Grants Pass Airport Thursday morning.