Alternatives to the use of helicopters

In the previous article some former firefighters question the use of helicopters and weigh the risks vs. benefits of using the machines on wildfires. There is no question that helicopter operations have an inherent risk, but so do some of the alternatives.

Rich Fairbanks, a former Forest Service firefighter and a current fire specialist with The Wilderness Society, said fires in wilderness could be allowed to burn to rocky ridges and rivers, where they’ll go out naturally so that “expensive and risky helicopters” would not have to be used. Sure, there are some places where “fire use” fires are appropriate, but limited or passive fire suppression allows fires to get larger, exposing firefighters to additional weeks or months of hazards from snags, steep terrain, vehicle accidents, and to one of the largest killers of firefighters, heart attacks.

Aggressive fire suppression, using overwhelming force with all of the available tools, reduces the overall risks to firefighters and the public, while also minimizing long term smoke exposure to communities.

The alternatives to helicopters have their own risks. I was on a fire in Colorado where the Incident Commander was very helicopter risk-adverse, and wanted to minimize their use. We needed to place a radio repeater on a mountain top and he vetoed using a helicopter, ordering that a pack train of horses be used to haul the equipment instead.

On the way up the mountain on a hiking trail, something spooked the horses and it turned into a rodeo. The horses bucked and ran, shedding their loads of expensive radios which tumbled down the steep slope. The equipment was destroyed.

If humans had been the cargo, it is likely that there would have been some serious injuries.

It took a couple of days to obtain a replacement repeater, which was then flown to the mountain. In the meantime, communications on the fire were not adequate, which compromised the safety of the firefighters.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.