The old days of sending firefighters to a wildfire on national forest land have changed. "Air delivery" of firefighters has improved, too. And, the newest system requires some training - which is scheduled in the Bitterroot Valley April 19-25.

The first firefighters never got off the ground - walking in or riding in to the fire. Then, along came the smokejumpers. Airplanes like our favorite "Miss Montana" would fly over the wildfire and drop the guys at a suitable location near the fire. Faster planes now get to the fire earlier, but there is still the possibility of a lot of walking involved.

Helicopters allowed quicker response with two firefighters aboard. At first, they needed a landing spot, which wasn't always available until someone on the ground cleared an area. But that has changed, too.

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Now, the helicopter arrives soon after the fire is reported and drops down a long line. Two rappellers climb down the line and start putting out the fire sooner than the other methods - very important in the remote backcountry.

National Training is in the Bitterroot Valley

Annual Rappel Training involves 71 rappellers/spotters from around the U.S. and a dozen support staff, according to Tod McKay of the Bitterroot National Forest. They will be using three helicopters at the Ruffatto Ranch in the Bass Creek area northwest of Stevensville and will train from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, April 19-25.

This is not the first time the U.S. Forest Service has done its national re-certification of rappellers in Ravalli County. And it won't be the last, McKay said, with another training planned in the same place May 2nd-6th. There will be no forest closures during the training, but those who are using the Bass Creek Recreation Area, especially those with horses, should be aware of the helicopter operations.

Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Matt Anderson said, "We rely on these crews each summer to reach many of our remote, backcountry wildfires, and are honored to host their National Recertification Training again this year."

The training will follow the National Rappel Operations Guide and will enhance the program's primary mission of initial attack. The crews also help with large fire support, hazard operations and other operations. The Stevensville Ranger District has more information at 406 777-5461.

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