april 2013

Editor’s Note: New South Wales Rural Fire Service’s (RFS) specialized remote area fire teams (RAFT), developed and pioneered by its volunteers, were created in response to the tragic 2003 Canberra Fires. To reach remote fires, they travel by 4WD, hike and are sometimes winched in from helicopters. A normal New South Wales (NSW) fire season lasts from October to February. As a busy season closes out, Mike Hill, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter who’s worked fire and emergency aviation on four continents, reflects on firefighting, mid-air.

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The BK 109 Twin-turbined helicopter is above me hovering at 100 feet, and they are slowly lowering the winch cable to me. It’s time to go. My other teammates have already been retrieved. I watch the horse collar on the end of the helicopter’s winch cable, waiting for it to touch the forest floor nearby so it will be able to discharge any electrical charge that may have built up on its way down to me. Once it’s down, it’s time to move.

Michael Hill being extracted on an NSW RAFT assignment.

I walk over carrying my pack and pick up the yellow horse collar rig lying on the ground nearby. Our team has already rigged our backpacks so they will be ready to attach to the horse collar’s hook by clipping a single strop strap now tied to each. We keep our packs each with us, however, until it’s our individual turn. My first task is to clip my pack’s strop strap to this horse collar’s cable attachment. My pack is now on, and next it’s my turn.

The horse collar goes over my helmet across my shoulders and down until it rests beneath my arm pits. I grab the now hanging strop strap again and hold it out to where that motion takes up the slack between my pack on the ground and the end of the helicopter’s cable, now attached to both me with this horse collar and my pack below by this strop strap. Looking back up at the helicopter I hold my free hand out and give a thumb’s up signal–I’m ready!

The helicopter screaming above has a crewman in a bright orange flight suit sitting on its skid watching for my thumb’s up. We nod to each other. He returns my thumb’s up, then I see him start the winch.

The strop strap hooked to my pack is long enough to make my pack swing back and forth at about knee level.

To get control of that, I swing my legs around and grip the pack as I was taught. This cable ride isn’t moving that fast upwards, but the helicopter is getting slowly larger as around me I watch the light green eucalyptus leaves of the forest go by.

My body on the end of this helicopter line begins to swing back and forth, and to stop it, I star fish my legs and arms out as I’ve been taught. That works, and I steadily rise up to this twin-tailed bird of the Australian fires.

My winch extraction up from this eucalyptus bush has gone well and I’m in the ship, rejoined with the BK’s crew and off to the next fire.

What’s a normal RAFT fire like for us? The RFS RAFT teams work closely with the NSW State Parks RAFT crews. When we use helicopters, the first team winches in to cut a LZ to prepare for the next load of helicopter-born RAFT to be landed, or to be used for supply delivery.

Now, after years of work in Australian fire aviation, I’m reminded of two facts that I find few American fire- fighters know. Where were the helicopter ping pong ball and fire shelters invented? Here in the burning Eucalypt of Australia.

—Michael Scott Hill, New South Wales, AU, Feb. 5, 2013