Malheur National Forest hosts aerial fire training in unique facility near John Day airport

About 100 firefighting personnel converged at the Grant County Regional Airport this month, as the Malheur National Forest hosted the 2002 Rappel Academy.

This will be the first academy that all five rappel bases in the Pacific Northwest have participated in at the same time, the Forest Service reported. Roughly 40 veterans and 50 rookies joined the academy.

"The completion of a newly built 42-foot tower simulator, the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, is the main reason this location was picked for the academy," said Jeff Pendleton, Malheur National Forest fire and aviation management officer. "The simulator has two platforms, one of which will provide safe, elevated rope control lessons to rookies."

The two-week training session is being held at the Malheur National Forest Helibase located in John Day. Twenty Malheur National Forest staff welcomed crews from eight national forests in two regions, including Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Firefighters received rappel training, in which they dropped from helicopters in simulations of firefighting initial attacks. Rappeling also is used in search-and-rescue operations.

The academy featured a regionwide drive to coordinate training, said Brad Gibbs, incident commander from the Umatilla National Forest.

"We've made a commitment over the years to try and standardize throughout Region 6," he said. The plan is to continue the trainings on an annual basis, and at least initially the exercises will take place at the John Day helibase. La Grande has plans to build a similar facility, which could provide a more centralized location, Gibbs added.

"The focus of this two weeks is strictly aviation management and rappeling," Pendleton said.

About a dozen local staff were called away to help fight fires in hot spots such as New Mexico and Colorado, Pendleton said.   

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