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Heli-rappelers train for summer fires

SALMON, Idaho (KIFI) - Some of the best firefighters in the country are in the Salmon-Challis National Forest this month to train for one of the most intense jobs in the world.

"There's definitely some anxiety that buzzer goes off," firefighter and heli-rappeler Sarah Jakober said. "Some of the folks that have been doing it for a while are like, here we go."

"You're hanging out at the base. Maybe you just worked out, maybe just at lunch and the buzzer goes off and you do the same thing every time."

"So you go get your gear on, got to helicopter, get loaded up."

In the coming weeks, 171 veteran rappellers and 80 rookies from across the country will learn the ropes so one day they can drop in and assist on blazes all over the nation.

Students at Salmon Air Base work in helicopter simulations, classroom mockups and high tower rappelling before they try out the real thing.

This week, the heli-rappellers focused on spotter immersion training, a job that involves staying in the air but is essential to combating the fires on the ground.

"My job would be to work between the pilot and the firefighters act as the initial contact and person arriving on scene on a fire to provide a size up to the dispatch center to coordinate and work out a fire plan with my firefighters in the back," firefighter and spotter Jeremy Alexander said.

Spotters are the pilot and rappellers eyes and ears in the air. A spotter will move throughout the helicopter, assessing the fire on the ground and directing the pilot towards an area for his jumpers to drop in.

"The pilot can't see. He can only see or they can only see out the windows and can't see straight down," Alexander said. "So that's the position or that's the gap in vision, but the spotter tries to help fill it."

The purpose of the training is to provide annual quality training for rappellers and spotters in accordance with the National Rappel Operations Guide; to strengthen leadership, teamwork and communications within the rappel community, and to produce quality aerial delivered firefighters for use in fire and aviation operations. 

The instructors tell us the training works to reset them every year, and is a stepping stone to getting back out and active in the fire season.

The daredevil Heli-Rappellers tell us the experience is a lot of fun and they wouldn't do it if they didn't enjoy it. And when it's time to actually fight a fire, what they learned in training is at the forefront.

"You're going through a process," Jakober said. "You've learned a procedure, and you just  compartmentalize all of the firefighting elements and all the risk for a second and just do what you've been trained to do. So it's  it's honestly pretty similar whether or not i'm stepping out on a proficiency rappel or on a fire."

Article Topic Follows: Idaho

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Seth Ratliff

Seth is a reporter for Local News 8 and Eyewitness News 3.


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