May 20, 2018
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Maine Forest Service tests Helitack program in Old Town drill

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

OLD TOWN, Maine — A report of a white cloud of smoke northeast of Old Town in the Crocker Pond area Monday sent forest service rangers into action and into the air in a helicopter.

Spotting the smoke on the horizon, Chief Ranger Pilot John Crowley circled the Bell 407 helicopter around it to allow his six passengers to gauge the fire’s diameter and the surrounding forest conditions before he landed the aircraft in a small opening in the forest canopy closest to the fire. The helicopter doors opened immediately and the passengers spilled out, bodies bent to avoid the aircraft’s spinning rotors.

Seconds later, equipped with hand tools and 50-pound backpacks filled with food, water, an emergency tent, a GPS, a portable weather device and a compass, the rangers were making their way through the forest to the fire.

The rangers on this fire drill observed by the news media were members of Maine’s highly trained Helitack crew who respond by helicopter anywhere in the state within 30 minutes of a wildfire report. Once on the ground, the three Helitack crew members immediately work to suppress the fire.

“In the instances where the unit ranger is already on-site and Helitack comes in, it’s very  relieving to see three fellow Rangers come in because you know that no matter what you ask of them, they’re going to be able to do it with no problem,” Thomas Liba, Ranger Helitatck coordinator, said Monday. “It’s really enhanced how we do business.”

Maine, which is the nation’s most heavily forested state with 18 million acres of timber, has much at stake when wildfires erupt. Of the average 750 wildfires a year, statistically most began as a result of homeowners burning their backyards and losing control of the fires rather than lightning strikes, Liba said.

While the 57 rangers in the forest service have fire suppression training, those in the Helitack program, which was organized last year, have extended training in the use of helicopters in fire suppression to improve response time.

“To me, it’s amazing what you can do with three or four motivated, highly trained and experienced people,” Ranger Lt. Jeffrey Currier said Monday.

Under the Helitack program, three rangers and a pilot, who work rotating schedules, are assigned each day at each of three locations, Old Town, Ashland and Augusta. The rangers are flown to scenes by skilled pilots under demanding weather and challenging terrain to control the fires until other rangers and Hotshots arrive by land, according to Liba.

“We realized very quickly how valuable it was because we can get to places very, very quickly,” Liba said. “We can land in areas that are fairly close to a fire and we’re physically fit, so we can hike into areas and we can get pumps set up very quickly.” And much of that success is the result of the skilled and experienced mechanics and pilots, according to Liba.

The forest service’s five ranger pilots have several aircraft at their disposal, including airplanes and four 40-plus-year-old helicopters on loan from the federal government. The aging helicopters, known as the workhorses of the fleet, can carry the pilot plus nine passengers, travel at about 110 mph and lift a 230-gallon bucket for water dropping.

But it is the faster state-owned Bell 407 helicopter that serves as the primary platform for the Helitack program. The Bell helicopter seats six passengers plus the pilot, flies nearly 150 mph and can tote a 180-gallon bucket for water dropping.

The fleet of helicopters, which are serviced by four division mechanics, are important for keeping a fire from getting larger, according to Crowley.

“Once it gets 100 acres, it’s a whole different animal. You need more people, you need more gear, things spread out and more homes can be threatened,” he said. The forest service has a waiver to fly below 500 feet so it can get in, do surveys and fight fires, but the pilots usually fly at about 2,000 feet, Crowley explained.

Crowley, who has been flying for 25 years, said Monday that as a pilot there is drama all the time. “Every day is something different,” he said.

Just as his days differ, so do the rangers’ days. While the rangers are responsible primarily for fire suppression in the Unorganized Territory, they also assist during floods, in search and rescue efforts, and enforce laws dealing with forest preservation. Despite the enforcement work, they do not carry firearms. When a situation is potentially threatening, they leave and call for assistance, Liba said.

A ranger’s job is multifaceted, according to Liba.  A ranger can provide evidence on a timber enforcement case in the morning, have an inspection of a logging operation later in the day and then find himself spending the remainder of the day embedded miles away from civilization fighting a forest fire in a remote Unorganized Territory.

Safety is of the utmost concern, according to Liba, and the forest service strives to keep its rangers from working too long, which can lead to fatigue.

“We have a phenomenal safety record,’’ Liba said of the Maine Forest Service, which receives 60 percent of its money from the state’s General Fund and 40 percent from the commercial forestry excise tax.

Even at Monday’s fire scene, safety was stressed. As two rangers worked to extinguish the small fire that had been intentionally set for the training exercise, Crowley made three water drops while flying over the fire scene. To ensure the safety of the rangers during the exercise, a dead tree that could have fallen during firefighting efforts was felled.

“Our goal is to give our rangers the most realistic training we can,” Currier said.

With Monday’s job complete, the rangers gathered up their gear, walked back to the helicopter, returned to their base for debriefing, and then prepared for their next assignment, wherever that may take them.

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