The author unloading helicopter H551 on Mt. Hoffman, Yosemite National Park. (Photo by NPS)

The author unloading helicopter H551 on Mt. Hoffman, Yosemite National Park. (Photo by NPS)

Learning the ropes on the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program

It’s a sunny day in May 2020 at the Crane Flat Helibase. Myself and four other “rookie” (new) rappelers have undergone days’ worth of ground school and tower training, practicing and perfectly executing procedures to prepare us for this moment — our first “live” helicopter rappel.

We work with a spotter and pilot. A spotter is an experienced rappeler who ensures the safe deployment of rappelers. They are proficient in rappel procedures, equipment checks, preflight checks, radio communication, hand signals, cargo let-down procedures and emergency signals/procedures. The spotter and pilot work together to determine the validity of a rappel site and if a mission will abort or continue.

After a few rounds of “mock-ups,” practicing procedures with the helicopter on the ground, we take a few breaths. Next, we complete a series of personal and protective equipment, and gear checks, before loading the helicopter — once for ourselves, once with a fellow rappeler and with our spotter.

Finally, we step onto the skids and shuffle into the rear-facing seats as our pilot Mikey starts the engine, and the rotors begin to turn.

“Ready in the back with five: all items secure, both doors pinned open.”

“Thank you. Four takeoff checks are complete. Clear left, right and above. Comin’ up.”

The whir of engine noise exists outside of our flight helmets. Rotor wash delivers cooled air to my already sweaty palms.

“Continuing.”

I focus on my breathing as I watch the ground fall away beneath the skids of the rising helicopter. I’m second from the left door, directly behind the pilot. As I scan the horizon to look for birds and other hazards, I can’t help but notice the stark granite features of Yosemite Valley, just east of the helibase. As we approach the rappel site, I say a quiet “thank you” to this place and focus my attention on our Boots, our spotter.

Once rappel operations are initiated, it’s a game of precision and efficiency. The first two rappelers step onto the skids and slide 200 feet to the ground.

“Site’s clear, rope’s clear. Send next rappelers.”

I rig my rappel device and step out onto the left skid after a final equipment check. Boots gives the go-ahead signal, and I lean back to initiate my first rappel from a hovering helicopter. About 15 seconds later, I’m on the ground again.

My partner and I give the “clear” signal to the ship, and I laugh to myself in gratitude for such a unique experience. My fellow rookies and I would complete eight more live rappels before earning the qualification of Helicopter Rappeler.

I was granted this experience as a part of the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program. I spent another five months working with Yosemite Helitack in the summer of 2020. It was a pivotal year for personal growth and development as a wildland firefighter.

As a fifth-year firefighter and third-year apprentice, it was the second in a series of seasons that would test my mental fortitude, adaptability and the quality of my current training. All allowed me to remain present and centered in stressful situations and seek out solutions to complex problems.

The Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program was started in 1989 with staff from the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were added as partnering agencies around 1997.

As of November 2021, all Department of the Interior agencies (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs) can now hire Wildland Fire Apprentices into permanent positions.

The Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program is an educational and experiential program designed to develop and enhance future Fire and Aviation managers. The program accomplishes this task by utilizing training, education and paid work experience to take an entry-level wildland firefighter to the “journey-level” (qualified Firefighter Type 1) by completion of the program.

The training and education consist of up to two academies hosted each spring and fall and on-the-job training through six required experience categories. These categories span fireline suppression duties (engines, dozers, hand crews, aviation) as well as time in dispatch, wildland fire prevention/education, local unit planning and preparedness, fuels management, fire business practices, and wildland fire safety.

The academies consist of classes to support progression in fire management through both line duty qualifications and leadership skills. Apprentices are also held to a national fitness standard, and we are expected to arrive at our academies ready to meet or exceed the minimums of 25 pushups, 45 situps, two to seven pullups and a 1.5-mile run in 10:30.

Each callisthenic is to be completed within three minutes, and we can do the test in any order. We must also meet the Work Capacity Test (pack test) at an “arduous” level — 3 miles in 45 minutes or less with a 45-pound weight vest.

Human performance optimization is another focal point of the academies. This course explores mental, emotional and physical health, and equips apprentices with stress management techniques and preventative maintenance strategies for healthy, functioning minds and bodies.

As we face a changing climate, our fire seasons are becoming longer, and the number of large fires is on the rise. Fire is a natural part of the landscape and has played its role in benefiting ecosystems for an incredibly long time. As our communities grow and the amount of wildland-urban interface increases, so do our challenges.

We need to adapt to living with fire at all levels, from people and property owners to state and federal land management agencies. I believe the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program is one of the best tools available for federal land management agencies to respond to the need to develop adaptable, well-rounded, critically thinking leaders to engage this increasingly complicated puzzle.

It has been an honor to serve as a Wildland Fire Apprentice for the Southern Alaska Refuges’ Fire Program over the past four seasons. This year brings an expansion to the USFWS Alaska Region Fire Program with the addition of a Fuels Module, with two apprentice positions included.

I am grateful to work for an agency and a refuge that face complex challenges with innovative solutions. I am looking forward to assisting our two apprentices along their journey to becoming leaders in the wildland fire service.

Allie Cunningham is a senior firefighter at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html and stay connected https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

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