This summer, 74 rookie rappellers are fighting fires by sliding down a rope from a helicopter and attacking the flames on the ground.
They’re often time the first responders to wildfires.
All of the rappellers from everywhere in the nation are trained in Salmon, Idaho.
The Salmon Airbase is the home of the ‘National Rappel Training Center.’ A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to be there to witness this year’s rookies’ very first time rappelling out of a helicopter.
It takes a certain kind of person to fight fires. It’s hot, dirty, dangerous work. It takes another kind of person to do that work ‘after’ rappelling down 200 feet from a helicopter. The first rookie we spoke to was a young and not very big woman.
“It’s fun and exciting and it’s a way to get to fires that ground people can’t get to,” says Gina Troy, rookie rappeller.
She’s been fighting fires on the ground for a few years. When the opportunity came up to become a rappeller, she jumped at it.
“I’m outside all the time. I’m hiking, playing with fire, helping others out,” she says excitedly.
When asked what it felt like to rappel out of a helicopter, she laughed, ” I don’t know! Today’s my first day! It’s actually my first helicopter ride!”
Gina is one of just a handful of women training with this group. The Forest Service would like to have more.
“There are more men than women,” says Stacy Parent, public information officer. “The FS recognizes there are not as many females. They’re trying to recruit high-quality candidates of either sex. It’s equal. Everyone gets treated the same.”
Male or female, the air is literally crackling with tension this afternoon as these rookies prepare for their first actual experience of rappelling out of a helicopter. They’ve had classroom training, ground training, and tons of tower training. They’ve practiced every eventuality here for every mishap that could happen.
Now, it’s time for the real deal. As always, safety is the number one priority.
“That’s the buddy check,” says Parent. “It’s very procedural. Making sure all equipment and gear is ready to go. They go through the same check procedure every time.”
Eric Bush is a national rappel expert. He’s been with the FS for 27 years. He’s proud of the safety record. When asked if he’d let his daughter fight fires this way, he responded, “You bet I would! I believe in this training. The camaraderie, the focus, the men and women worked hard to get here.”
As the first loaded chopper arrives, you find yourself holding your breath. It’s difficult enough rappelling, but to exit the chopper, the firefighter has to lean all the way back, upside down, and then kick away from the step before dropping down to the ground. That’s so they don’t swing back into the helicopter and hurt themselves. Gina gets a high five from her instructor when she hits the ground, telling her she did just right.
“Gina, was it scary?”
“Not really,” she responds softly.
“Want to do it again?'”
“Oh yeah!” she confirms.