NEVADA CITY – When it comes to wildfires, crews fighting from the air is nothing new, but for the Tahoe National Forest, it is re-launching a program that went quiet following the death of a firefighter.
The U.S. Forest Service brought its rappel program to the region after carefully re-examining its operations and equipment. Its rappelers have been deployed to fires multiple times this summer.
"One thing that's critical to our wildfire response is aerial-delivered firefighters," said aviation officer Roger Caballero of the Tahoe National Forest.
Following the launch earlier this summer, the crew saw immediate gains after multiple lightning strikes further north in California entered the region. The firefighters were able to knock down flames in some of the most rugged terrain and difficult places to reach.
"The rope bags range between 250-300 feet just to allow for clearance in the timber areas," Caballero said.
The operation is harrowing, especially after a firefighter died in 2009.
The federal government said Thomas "TJ" Marovich fell approximately 200 feet to the ground during training.
It appeared the 20-year-old was not properly attached to the rope, which resulted in a free fall.
The forest service hit the pause button for the region. But this time around, what has been done to keep rappelers safe?
"In 2009, there was a programmatic review of the entire rappel program nationally because again, it's not just a state program – to look at standardization and improving equipment to look at improving overall safety for the rappel operations," Caballero said.
Tucked away in the Tahoe National Forest, CBS13 observed a buddy check – a longstanding practice, according to the agency. While a pilot fired up the chopper, rappelers examined each other before the spotter gave the final approval before takeoff.
"Everything is communicated via hand signals and touch while they're operating in that mode," Caballero said.
Before arriving at a scene, the crew knows how it plans to respond.
"As far as aerial delivered firefighters, the two primary ways for the U.S. Forest Service are rappelers and smoke jumpers," Caballero said. "Each capability provides their own advantages."
Unlike smoke jumpers, rappelers do not need as much clearance. They are able to drop into heavily wooded areas, directly into where a response is needed.
For Caballero, he had hoped this opportunity would come again.
"The job that these men and women do – and the profile they're willing to put themselves in to make sure these communities are protected — that should be highlighted," he said.
With this crew now in operation, it is one of twelve regions that hosts rappel operations across the agency.
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