By John Wagner
After a long winter, with loads of snowpack in the mountains, severe wildfires may seem improbable. For those who live in the West, however, we know it is only a matter of time before wildfires become reality again. Fortunately for the Western Slope, Montrose houses the Montrose Helitack Crew, dedicated to wildfire prevention, suppression, and initial attack.
With an Instagram page featuring images that rival screenshots from a Hollywood action movie, it is easy to be impressed with the Helitack’s missions. It’s not hard to see what might draw those with a sense of adventure
, and the desire to protect public lands and people, to a career on a Helitack crew. Hanging out of a helicopter as it nears a wildfire or performing search and rescue missions with other crews, surely brings a sense of thrill and enjoyment to the job. Work consists of far more than incredible action photos though, as there is also an immense amount of training required of the crew.
Just because the helicopter can drop them off, does not mean it can pick them up again
The crew consists of 12 personnel, including two incident commanders; fallers to cut fire lines; and EMTs to provide medical support. This crew goes through robust training including chainsaw operation, fitness pack tests (to earn a firefighting Red Card), aviation training, hoist operator and rescuer training, and more, depending on the level of training desired by the crewmember. Advanced crewmembers can pursue training in incident management, helicopter management, and helicopter base management, enabling them to coordinate helicopter operations between multiple aircraft. Crews also go through “water ditching” training, giving them skills necessary to exit the aircraft in a water crash and they become “step certified,” which enables them to enter and exit the helicopter while it hovers – a crucial skill set in the Rocky Mountains if the helicopter cannot land in mountainous terrain.
Crew members, Clay Crosswhite (Assistant Helicopter Manager), Tyler Thorn (Lead Helicopter Crew), and Cass Weidemeuller (Lead Helicopter Crew) explain that challenges of the job include mission unpredictability and time away from home. As a state resource, the team can be called upon to be anywhere to provide assistance to any type of operation. The crew always has a two-week bag packed, so they can camp without needing to resupply. They also have a survival kit as part of their daily kit. Just because the helicopter can drop them off, does not mean it can pick them up again if weather, fire trajectory, or other circumstances prevent an extraction. The ability to survive overnight, or longer, is a real consideration for the team.
On top of firefighting missions, the crew has assisted with numerous other operations, including search and rescue, and a mission that involved delivering a boat from outside The Black Canyon of the Gunnison into the canyon depths. Weidemeuller said that was one of those missions that goes down in memory, while Thorn commented on how amazingly noisy it is flying a helicopter into a narrow canyon. The team also assisted with the recovery of 74 million year old duck-billed dinosaur remains, after helping fight a fire in Dinosaur National Monument.
Crosswhite describes one of his most memorable missions as watching continuous lightning strikes create 15 additional fire starts. He said the detailed reporting and coordination of fast-attacking those starts has stuck with him. Thorn remembers supporting the Cameron Peak fire for over 60 days and having to move 60+ fire personnel and their gear off a ridge and relocating them in just 5 hours. Weidemeuller talks about loving when Search and Rescue missions come together with a positive outcome, but you can hear the tone in his voice change when he talks about certain missions that ended without a successful rescue. This moment provides an overwhelming sense of humanity to the work the crew performs and highlights their commitment to protect human life.
The crew is composed of hard core outdoorsmen, chainsaw experts, and fire suppression professionals who ride a helicopter to work and yet are grounded, caring humans who remember the missions that did not end with a positive outcome. There are no Top Gun aviation antics discernable amongst the crew, just a group dedicated to being the best at their task. The next time you run into Clay, Tyler, Cass, or their crews at the brewery, be sure to buy them a round. Not all heroes wear capes, and, in the West, some of our greatest heroes wear fire-retardant clothing, carry a chainsaw, and deploy out of a Bell 205 A1++.