State’s helicopter firefighting crews train, gear up for busy summer

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CLE ELUM, Wash. — The helicopter blades chop through the warm spring air over the grassy runway at Cle Elum municipal airport.

“Ready for the drop,” squawks the two-way radio.

The chopper moves in and releases 250 gallons of water onto trees at the edge of the airport. This is just a Washington Department of Natural Resources training drill, but the real fire season is getting underway in parts of the Evergreen State. That means the state’s largest on-call fire department is gearing up for a busy summer.

These helicopter training maneuvers for the DNR crews that will be battling blazes until fall rains return to the Northwest are critically important to have these four to seven firefighters and pilot working in sync in cramped quarters for hours and hours at a time. It's these air crews that help keep fires small and less destructive.

For 24-year-old Port Angeles native Katie Babcock, this is her 6th season fighting fires -- but her first as part of a helicopter firefighting crew.

"From the ground the fire looks a lot smaller.

Katie Babcock gearing up for her 1st season as a helicopter firefighter crew member.

You don't get the whole picture. And then from the air you're just like, wow, this is what we're dealing with?!"

Babcock is one of only two women on the half-dozen helicopter crews. But don't let her size fool you, she can pack a lot of gear on her 5-foot, 120-pound frame.

"My total with my flight helmet and my pack is another 70 pounds on top of how much I weigh."

During the fire season, the DNR will disperse their fleet of six helicopters across Washington and stage them as conditions ripen for wildfires as we get deeper into the summer months. They have a seventh to mobilize if conditions warrant putting it into service.

Their goal is to be able to take off within five minutes from getting a call and be on-site within a half-hour or less. The agency's goal is to keep wildfires in their jurisdiction to less than 10 acres in size 95% of the time. Ten acres seems small, but it's roughly the size of 14 football fields.

And the terrain they're dealing with is anything like the flatness you'd find at the 50-yard line at CenturyLink Field, which is exactly why the support from helicopters and two fixed-wing planes are a crucial part of the DNR's battle plan for wildfire season.

"The air portion is extremely important for hard-to-reach or critically hot and dry days," says Wyatt Leighton of the DNR. He's assistant manager in the southeast region of the state that covers a lot of mountainous and dry terrain from the Kittitas Valley down through the windy Columbia River Gorge and out toward the Tri-Cities.

Leighton says our wet spring on both sides of the Cascades poses special challenges for planning for the summer. All the grasses and underbrush have been growing all spring long and will dry out soon, primed to burn. Last year, the DNR says, they were able to hit their goal of keeping 95 percent of their wildfires less than 10 acres. But, much of that is at the whim of Mother Nature.

"The fire season is really dictated by the weather of July, August, and September," says Leighton. "Once that grass starts to cure out and in our low elevations, that's when it gets going -- and it's started to do that already."

This year the DNR will have $2.5 million to run the helicopter portion of the DNR firefighting effort -- that's up from a budgeted $2 million last year. "We've got a lot more than we used to have," says Leighton, "but not enough to get everywhere all the time."

Their biggest challenge: people. The DNR says 90 percent of wildfires in Washington are human-caused. And more people moving to the Evergreen State can mean more fires. The wet spring this year makes rookie Babcock a bit nervous since it can lull people into being careless with fire.

On behalf of herself and her crew mates that will be putting their lives in danger over and over this summer -- she wants to remind people of ways to make sure fires get sparked accidentally in the first place.

Besides the obvious things like campfires not being properly extinguished, she says people's vehicles can cause big problems in the upcoming summer season. Things like hot car exhaust pipes, chains from a trailer hitch that drag on the concrete, or the ball bearings in a trailer's wheels not properly maintained all can be the first spark that causes a massive and perfectly preventable wildfire. She says if you start a fire accidentally, put it out if you can do so safely-- before it gets out of control. "Fire is dangerous, safety always comes first," says Babcock.

And for this helicopter-firefighting rookie and admitted adrenaline junkie -- she also wants girls to know they can get on board too. "I think if you love the outdoors and you're passionate about working hard and especially [enjoy] public service -- definitely go for it."