Rappellers are firefighters who are delivered to remote and inaccessible wildfires by means of dropping down a rope from helicopters hovering 250 feet high.
Earlier this month over 50 veteran Forest Service rappellers throughout the West prepared for a new fire season with training and recertification classes in Oregon and Idaho.
This is real hands-on training using real equipment, real time proficiency testing, and the actual helicopters that will be used by the rappellers throughout the summer.
The rappel training and firefighting season is usually from early May through mid-September, but it’s a year-round job of physical conditioning for most of them.
The first week of training, rookie rappellers must prove they can meet the rigors they will face and must meet significant minimum standards. With no more than five minutes between each of these activities, they must run 1-1/2 miles in under 11 minutes, and do at least 25 push-ups in one minute, seven pull-ups, and 45 sit-ups in one minute.
Then, at the end of that they must cover a three-mile level track in 90 minutes – carrying a 110-pound pack.
Among the rappellers, some of whom have done the work for 20 years, Jenna Cunningham of the Siskiyou Rappellers of Grants Pass, Ore., says she finds the job varied and interesting. “This is a different side of firefighting. Compared to some jobs, where you know what you’ll do every day, this is always different,” Cunningham said.
Last year, she did four operational rappels to actual fires, in addition to rappels required every two weeks in order to keep certification current. Because of intensive training and the procedures that are instilled in rappellers, she isn’t overly concerned about the danger. “We’re very well-trained,” she said. “Safety is our top priority.”