In 1947, helicopters were first used on wildland fires in southern California and were soon recognized as a valuable tool. Fire managers found that helicopters could rapidly transport personnel and cargo to a fire and then remain on-scene to perform a variety of tactical and logistical missions. Today, more than 500 helicopters are on contract with federal land management agencies for use in a wide variety of projects and missions. All helicopter operations must adhere to the rigid agency and interagency standards, policies and safety procedures.
Helicopters can be equipped with a bucket or fixed tank to drop water or retardant during firefighting operations. They deliver helitack crews (firefighting personnel) for initial attack, and transport personnel and cargo in support of fires. Some helitack firefighters are trained to rappel from the helicopter to reach fires in remote locations quickly. Helicopters can carry instruments to provide infrared imaging or to generate digital maps of wildland fires. And, when medical emergencies arise, helicopters can transport injured firefighters from the fireline and take them directly to emergency medical facilities.
A helitack crew provides land management agencies with a safe, highly skilled and productive aerial firefighting resource. Crew members maintain unwavering professionalism and a work ethic that is second to none. They promote professionalism, work ethic, respect, physical training and conditioning, attitude, team work and versatility.
A standard 8-hour day on a helitack crew consists of preparing and positioning fire gear on the helicopter or chase vehicle, a morning briefing consisting of weather, situation report and safety, training and post-fire discussions, daily projects such as vehicle and facilities maintenance, and a three to eight mile run, along with some weight training, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups.
Typical fire assignments last 8 to 16 hours and consists of fire line construction with hand tools and a chainsaw, directing helicopter water drops, managing helibase and helispot operations.
When not assigned to wildland fires, helicopters and their trained helitack personnel may be used to ignite prescribed fires, flying with helitorches suspended from the helicopter or dropping spherical ignition devices.