Air support key to fighting fire in canyon country

By Katy Nesbitt July 25, 2014 04:24 pm

Hannah Page of the Mesa Verde Helitack flew in the crew’s Bell 206 Long Ranger from Colorado to Joseph. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is using the crew to fly in crews and supplies to remote areas since lightning-caused fires began to erupt across the region last week. (Katy Nesbitt/The Observer)
Hannah Page of the Mesa Verde Helitack flew in the crew’s Bell 206 Long Ranger from Colorado to Joseph. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is using the crew to fly in crews and supplies to remote areas since lightning-caused fires began to erupt across the region last week. (Katy Nesbitt/The Observer)
JOSEPH — From the peaks of the Eagle Caps to the canyons of the Grande Ronde, Imnaha and Snake rivers, Wallowa County has an infinite amount of inaccessible country. Air support from helicopters is essential in getting water to those hard to reach places and transporting crews and gear safely.

Following a night of lightning earlier this month, a whiff of smoke puffed up from the Hurricane Creek Canyon that dives into the Wallowa Mountains between Joseph and Enterprise. By 8 a.m., crews were rolling out of the U.S. Forest Service fire warehouse in Enterprise, yet the fire, soon to be named after the canyon in which it burned, was going to be difficult to fight strictly from the ground.

The Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests share two helicopter rappel crews that respond to many of the remote fires across the region and put them out while they are still small. Due to the rugged terrain and the potential for more fires to erupt during the region’s high lightning season, the Wallowa-Whitman’s overhead team ordered two helicopter crews from outside the region — the Mesa Verde National Park Helitack team and a crew from the Grand Canyon National Park.

Within a few days of the Hurricane Creek Fire’s start, the Cougar Fire broke out, high up the Deer Creek drainage between Bear Wallowa and Boundary campgrounds. This fire, too, was in a roadless area. Crews and supplies were flown in as well as continuous water drops to cool the edges and the hot spots burning within the perimeter.

Both the Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon crews are used to working in remote, inaccessible, steep country and were well matched to the terrain of Oregon’s northeastern corner.

The Grand Canyon crew’s pilot, Bryce Barnett, said he calls himself the “Grand Canyon Soccer Mom” because he is constantly running errands from flying supplies to remote ranger stations, finding lost hikers, getting boats unstuck, rescuing injured people in the backcountry and fighting fire. His ship is specially designed to land in difficult spots or, in the case of where landing is impossible, it can attach an injured person by cable to get them to a safer spot.

For the complete story, see Friday's edition of The Observer.