Heli-rappelling tower helps fire crews prepare for 'real deal'

CALEB WARNOCK The Daily Herald on Saturday, June 14

Michelle Mansfield hopes to spend her summer suspended from a helicopter over the bowels of a 1,200-degree wildfire.

Mansfield, of Vernal, is one of nearly two dozen firefighters who will finish up a week of training in Provo today to qualify her to rappel into wildfires in remote and otherwise inaccessible forest areas in Utah County and even around the nation.

The weeklong training was the first of its kind conducted at the Utah Wildfire Academy's new $150,000 heli-rappelling tower, located near the Provo Municipal Airport.

"It was really cool," Mansfield said. "I'm excited to do the real thing."

Mike Scott of Sandy, a heli-rappelling expert with 14 years of firefighting experience who helped train Mansfield, called the new tower, "one of the top two or three facilities in the nation."

And, he added, with Utah in the throes of its fifth year of drought, there is almost no chance that heli-rappelling crews won't be needed this summer.

"The big thing is having an actual helicopter fuselage that we are working out of," he said. "Our folks are already qualified firefighters, and this training is going to buy us so much more of an advantage in the bigger
picture. We could be used as a national resource as well as a local resource."

Many firefighters trained in fighting forest blazes can be flown by helicopter to remote fires, but few are trained in the difficult job of rappelling to the earth in areas where landing a chopper is impossible.

The new tower, which sports the body of a helicopter at its top, allows crews to train for situations where, without dropping in fire crews from the air, the blaze could grow out of control, said Lance Wollebaek, assistant director of training at the Utah Wildfire Academy.

"It allows them to go into more remote areas that are inaccessible by foot or by road," he said. "If there is a wildfire, we will be able to do an initial attack right when the fire starts. If it takes a long time to hike in, the fire is going to get bigger. But if they can rappel in quickly they will hopefully be able to put the fire out."

Mansfield, who has two years of firefighting experience under her belt, said she volunteered to become a heli-rappelling crew member even though it meant risking her life.

"There are so many different aspects to firefighting and I just want to get out and test the boundaries and see what I like the best," she said. "I really like the helicopter. The thrill is really exciting."

AJ Murray, another trainer, said the Wildfire Academy's practice tower helps prepare crew members for the stress of the real deal. The tower is 50 feet high, but in a wildfire situation firefighters can be required to rappel from a helicopter hovering 250 feet in the air.

"Here everything is stationary, there are no turning rotors, it is quiet and it is low stress," he said. "It lets them feel like they've done it before so in the case of a real fire they don't get stressed out. We train for anything that can possibly happen."