Helicopters hovering over the Malheur National Forest are a telltale sign that fire season has arrived in Grant County.
Last week, the Grant County Regional Airport was the jumping-off point for essential training for a select group of wildland firefighters as the U.S. Forest Service hosted its yearly rappel certification training course.
Roughly 60 returning rappelers from Oregon and Idaho dangled from helicopters hundreds of feet in the air to practice rappeling, a method of descending rapidly using ropes and climbing hardware. They also participated in mockups and reviewed emergency procedures.
Adam Kahler, a national rappel specialist who started as a rappeler in Grant County in the early 2000s, said the training from May 2-7 was one of two annual recertification events the U.S. Forest Service hosts each year. There’s also a rookie training in Salmon, Idaho.
Rappel-trained firefighters are an elite group. According to Kahler, there are just 300 Forest Service rappelers nationwide.
Last week’s training was for veteran rappelers. Some, Kahler said, were coming back for their 15th year, while others were coming back for their second or third season.
The training session, he said, is a chance not only to come back and do crew training but it also provides an opportunity for multiple crews — rappelers, helicopter spotters, and pilots — to work together again.
Kahler said a rappel crew’s specialty is roping into small, remote, quick-response fires.
All of the training is standardized. So, when a crew is called out, depending on the location, they can be on a fire in as little as an hour. That’s why the training is so important between the multiple crews, Kahler said.
“(Rappelling) is just a very quick, efficient way to get people on the ground where they need to be,” he said.
Kahler said the rappel crews do not bring on new firefighters. Instead, they look for experienced firefighters who bring a solid skill set with them.
When the Forest Service dispatches a crew to a remote area, they have limited supervision.
Typically, he said, each crew is between two and four people, and they go out in the woods and make decisions on their own.
“We’re looking for very experienced, very fit people,” Kahler said.