Hand crews and Blackhawk pilots train in South Dakota

National Guard helicopter pilots, inmate crews, and recruits for the Bear Mountain hand crew trained with live fire in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota on Friday. The pilots were from Guard units in South Dakota and North Dakota while the inmates were from the Department of Corrections’ Rapid City Minimum Security Unit.

Here is an excerpt from the Rapid City Journal:

Friday was the first time on the fire line for 20 members of a Department of Corrections crew. They were joined by 10 Bear Mountain crew recruits who did fire training course work online but needed the day in the field, [public information officer Beth] Hermanson said.

“They’re learning how to read fire behavior,” Hermanson said.

State fire agency trainers spent a week in the classroom at the state’s Minimum Security Unit in Rapid City training the Department of Corrections firefighters. Crew members receive 40 hours of basic wildland training.

“They’ve spent the last two days in the classroom, and now, they’re out here on the fire, actually using the skills they learned in the classroom in a practical setting,” [South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe] Lowe said.

The crews also learned to lay hoses and operate water pumps.

And they learned to work with air support provide by the Blackhawks. While crews trained on the ground, 21 helicopter pilots were training overhead. Ten North Dakota and 11 South Dakota National Guard pilots completed the training runs they need before they can respond to fires. Each pilot had to make three runs towing a bucket filled with 660 gallons of water. Pilots are required to make three drops — mid-slope, downhill and uphill. At the same time, they must coordinate those drops with an air boss circling the drop site. The pilots must also keep in contact with the crew working below them.

The aerial support is vital to fighting fires in the Black Hills, Lowe said. “The Black Hills burns.”

Each year, Gov. Mike Rounds gives Lowe the authority to activate National Guard helicopters for firefighting.

An interagency compact between the state, U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service also gives the state the ability to handle most fires in a fire-prone area with homes in the forest, Lowe said.

“We’re a force to be reckoned with,” Lowe said.

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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.