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Equipped to fight: The tools and teams fighting blazes in Southern Oregon

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A type 3 helicopter carries firefighters Thursday with Oregon Department of Forestry's helitack crew, for reconnaissance work. A type 3 helicopter is the smallest but most nimble of three helicopter types used in wildland firefighting. [Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune]
Gavin Mclaughlin, helicopter crew member, holds a Pulaski tool used to dig fire lines, at Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District headquarters in Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
This Oregon Department of Forestry type 2 water tender can bring up to 3,000 gallons of water to the fire lines. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
This Oregon Department of Forestry type 3 fire engine can carry five firefighters and 750 gallons. It is the “workhorse of the fleet,” according to ODF spokeswoman Natalie Weber. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
This type 2 bulldozer at Oregon Department of Forestry in Medford is used to strengthen fire lines. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Type 1 helicopters such as this Sikorsky S-64 can carry as much as 2,500 gallons of water. It’s used for delivering equipment and other logistics. [RRSNF photo]
A 20-person Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest type 2 rappel crew can fight fires in remote areas, even when there’s not a good helicopter landing zone. [RRSNF photo]
U.S. Forest Service rappel crews can also use this Bell 206, which is classified as a type 3 helicopter. [RRSNF photo]
Large air tankers such as this McDonnell Douglas MD-87 converted by Erickson Aero Tanker can hold 3,000 gallons. [ODF Southwest Oregon district photo]
Very large air tankers such as this McDonnell Douglas DC-10 can deliver 12,000 gallons of fire retardant. [RRSNF photo]
This single engine air attack platform is stationed at the Medford airport and is used by Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District for fire detection recon flights and aircraft coordination over fires. [ODF photo]
Air attack platforms coordinate, direct and evaluate air tanker operations. Twin Commander 500 and 600 models are most common. [RRSNF photo]
Smokejumper aircraft deliver smokejumpers and cargo by parachute for initial attack and extended support. [RRSNF photo]

The true power and capability of firefighting resources on deck in Southern Oregon can be overshadowed for the sake of brevity.

From “Helitack” to “IA” to “Pulaski,” wildland firefighters have their own shorthand for describing the people and equipment tasked with keeping Southern Oregon’s wildfires at bay. Yet with new fire starts abounding in the Rogue Valley and mountains of Southern Oregon, and major fires burning in California, those terms are seeping into local news reports and social media feeds.

Despite a busy week extinguishing a wave of lightning-sparked wildfires, local firefighters and fire officials shared insights on their teams and tools of the trade.

Helitack — from eyes in the sky to boots on the ground

Five firefighters with Oregon Department of Forestry’s Medford helitack crew piled into an MD 902 helicopter contracted out to ODF for the fire season for a Thursday afternoon recon — or reconnaissance — mission east of Interstate 5 and south of Highway 66 looking for new fire starts.

A key way ODF works to keep new fire starts in remote areas from becoming larger fires is by flying firefighters straight to the scene.

They scout for fires in areas hard to access by road, then touch down to tackle them, according to ODF Southwest Oregon District helitack foreman Jordan Van Avery.

“We fight fire on the ground while (the helicopter pilot) does bucket drops,” he said.

Van Avery has worked as a firefighter for 11 years. He started on hand crews, and five years ago helped relaunch ODF’s Medford-based helitack.

“We all kind of built it from the ground up,” Van Avery said.

Helitack crews are firefighters specially trained in the tactical use of helicopters to suppress fires. In addition to managing helicopter landing zones, known as helibases, helicopter crew members often deliver people and equipment to remote areas.

The MD 902 is classified as a type 3 helicopter by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group — an agency that ensures local, state and federal agencies are all working with the same terms.

It’s the smallest of three helicopter classifications. Its national rating requires the capability of carrying at least 100 gallons. ODF’s type 3 helicopter, contracted by Brim Aviation of Ashland, has a bucket capacity of 216 gallons.

The largest available helicopter in the area is a type 1 sky crane stationed in Merlin capable of carrying at least 700 gallons.

On the Medford base, the largest helicopter is a type 2 Bell UH-1H, often known as a “Huey,” which carries a 324-gallon bucket. ODF has one type 2 Huey on contract for the entirety of Southern Oregon’s fire season — meaning it's not leaving Jackson and Josephine counties — and another one contracted on an as-needed basis, according to ODF Southwest District spokeswoman Natalie Weber.

Helitack crews need safe landing zones to get on the ground and fight fires, but there are other types of firefighters in the air, according to Fire & Aviation staff officer Dan Quinones, who works with the forest duty officer to order the necessary resources to protect 1.8 million acres of federal forestland.

In cases where a safe landing isn’t possible, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has a type 2 rappel helicopter available. The forest service’s type 2 rappel crew members rappel from hovering helicopters for duties that include preparing landing zones to allow better access to a fire.

“It’s a multi-mission aircraft,” Quinones said in a Zoom interview, describing the 20-person rappel crew stationed out of Merlin as mobile and adept.

Once on the ground, the aircraft can be used for water drops or logistical missions.

“We really look at availability,” Quinones said. “Boots on the ground is really what puts fires out.”

Quinones said his agency works closely with state and local fire departments. They have agreements to put out fires where they see them — even if the fire turns out to be burning on private property or another agency’s land.

“Jurisdictions don’t matter to us,” Quinones said.

Whether it’s a helitack crew or a more common trucked-in hand crew, the focus in fighting wildland fires is containment.

Hand crews dig fire lines in the dirt with hand tools such as shovels, Pulaskis — a hybrid ax and adze — and McLeod tools — a combination rake and hoe — to create barriers that won’t burn. Bulldozer crews strengthen those fire lines.

Wildland firefighters can’t rely on hydrants the way municipal fire departments can, so water tenders truck in the resource to the fire lines anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 gallons at a time.

The width of a fire line varies but is typically about double the height of the tallest vegetation to prevent the fire from spreading.

Engine crews pump water and foam retardants in the firefight. The “workhorse” of the fleet, according to Weber, is ODF’s type 3 engine capable of carrying 750 gallons, five firefighters and much of their gear.

In smaller firefights or areas with much tighter access, ODF crews draw on resources such as a type 6 engine, a fire engine based on a standard Ram 3500 or Ford F-350 Super Duty with a 300-gallon tank or a lighter duty type 7 engine, which is a standard pickup containing at least a 50-gallon water tank and a pump apparatus inside the bed.

After a fire is knocked down, and for several days after the fire, crews engage in mop-up. Chainsaw operators known as fallers remove burned trees and hazards while hand crews sift through the area looking for smoldering embers.

From hand tools to helicopters, each piece of equipment plays an important role in the firefight, according to Weber. “They’re all pieces to the puzzle.”

Crew types and allocating resources

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has different types of crews bringing different skill sets to local fire lines. When available, Quinones described his best and most versatile option as the type 1 crew.

Also known as an interagency Hotshot crew, this team of 20 to 25 elite firefighters have advanced training and meet extra conditioning requirements over type 2 firefighters, along with built-in leadership and capabilities needed to respond to emerging wildfires.

The type 1 crew has at least three squad bosses on duty, and can break into different squads for various jobs — from constructing fire line to fighting fire with fire, according to Quinones.

Because of their capabilities, the Portland office of the National Geographic Area Coordination Center will often need to utilize the Hotshot crew on other fires within Oregon and Washington.

Last week, however, when the region had red flag warnings for lightning on dry fuels, Quinones utilized the extensively trained firefighters.

“We had an order for them for our lightning and put them to work,” Quinones said.

Type 1 crews are prioritized for emerging fires that threaten people, property or infrastructure, but type 2 initial attack crews are quite capable when new fires break out.

Sometimes called an IA module or type 2 IA crew, these crews can serve as a standard type 2 crew, but bring to the fire lines multiple vehicles and qualified incident commanders so they can similarly break into several separate squads and attack fires at their earliest stages, according to Quinones and the Forest Service.

“When we hear ‘lightning’ (in the forecast), we look to the Type 2 IA crews to be able to have that capacity to spread them out and move them around,” Quinones said.

Type 2 crews could be described as entry level, but Quinones said some “can be pretty highly qualified as well.” They work a wide variety of duties on the fire lines — be they hand crews, engine crews or helitack — and are supervised by type 1 firefighters, crew bosses or other leadership.

Hand crews are brought in “if we think we’re going to have fires that are going to need additional care,” such as digging fire lines for containment or mop-up.

“The type 2 crews can continue the work to make sure that fire doesn’t go anywhere,” Quinones said.

Quinones weighs multiple factors such as terrain, access, the types of fuels burning — dense forest or dry grass — and availability when allocating resources with the forest duty officer. Another consideration — especially for fires called in by professionals — is whether the fire has low, medium or high spread potential, according to Quinones

When smoke is reported in heavy timber, Quinones considers calling out extra resources. Depending on a host of factors, however, such as crews and equipment already committed to other fires, those resources may not be available at the local level.

“If it’s got road access, it might be one asset. If it’s in the wilderness area, maybe it’s not the best fit — that’s when we go to our rappellers or the smokejumpers out of Redmond,” Quinones said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.

Aircraft

Type 1 helicopter

Capacity: 2,500 gallons

Used for water drops, equipment deliveries and other logistics.

Aircraft types: Sikorsky S-61, S-64 and Kaman K-MAX

Type 2 helicopter

Capacity: 500 gallons

Passenger capacity: 9 to 14

Used for logistical delivery, water drops and for transporting helitack and rappel firefighters.

Aircraft types: Bell 205A and Bell UH-1 Iroquois variants

Type 3 helicopter

Passenger capacity: 4 to 8

Capacity: 300 gallons of fire retardant or water

Used for water drops, logistical support and reconnaissance missions.

Very large air tanker (VLAT)

Capacity: 12,000 gallons of fire retardant

Aircraft type: McDonnell Douglas DC-10

Large air tanker

Capacity: 3,000 gallons

This McDonnell Douglas MD-87 converted by Erickson Aero Tanker has a 900-mile range and a cruising speed of 450 knots or 517.85 mph.

Others used by the Forest Service carry 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Single engine air tanker

Capacity: 800 gallons of fire retardant

Capable of reloading and operating in areas larger air tankers cannot access.

Aircraft type: Air Tractor AT-802

Lead plane

Coordinates, directs and evaluates air tanker operations.

Aircraft type: Beechcraft King Air 90 and 200 models are most common

Air attack platform

Coordinates aerial firefighting aircraft over wildfires.

Aircraft type: Twin Commander 500 and 600 models are most common.

Water scooper

Amphibious aircraft that skim the surface of a body of water, scoops it into an onboard tank and drops it on the fire.

Aircraft types: Bombardier CL-215/415 and Air Tractor Fire Boss

Smokejumper aircraft

Delivers smokejumpers and cargo by parachute for initial attack and extended support.

Aircraft types: de Havilland DH-6 300 series Twin Otter, Shorts Sherpa C-23-A and SD3-60, Dornier 228 and CASA 212.

Water tender

Capacity: 1,000 to 4,000 gallons; seats up to two personnel

Bulldozers

Type 1

Largest dozers used by the Forest Service. Models include Caterpillar D7 and D8 models

Type 2

Most common dozers for general use. Models include Caterpillar D5N and D6N.

Type 3

Used primarily to fortify fire lines in mountainous terrain and narrow roads where access for larger dozers is difficult. Models include Caterpillar D3 and D4H.

Engines

Type 3

Capacity: 1,000-gallon tank and seats at least three personnel

Type 4

Capacity: 750-gallon tank; seats at least two personnel

Type 5

Capacity: 400-gallon tank and at least two personnel

Type 6

Capacity: 300-gallon tank and at least two personnel

— Source: Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest