Big Hill Helitack: Building the Future Firefighting Workforce

Photo of 2018 crew with forest in the background.

The Big Hill Helitack program at the Eldorado National Forest manages two contract helicopters – one Type 1 and one Type 2 – which are national resources. When fully staffed, the Big Hill Helitack crew has 16 employees including a superintendent, a helicopter manager for each helicopter, and 13 other crew members. The helicopters are also staffed with a contract pilot, fuel truck drivers and mechanics.

The Type 1 helicopter is strictly for bucket work, and has a helicopter manager which oversees its deployments throughout the season. The Type 2 Helicopter “5-1-6” is used for bucket work as well as to transport firefighters to locations that are not accessible by road. Helicopter 516 is heavily involved in initial attack, so its crew members are often the first to respond when a wildfire is reported. Other missions are to shuttle crews and cargo to assignments during large fires, or to perform aerial ignition either as a suppression strategy or during a prescribed fire.

At any given time, there are usually a combination of full time, temporary, and apprentice positions on the helitack crew. The apprentice program is a two year career track for people entering the wildland fire profession. There are six apprentices on the Big Hill Helitack crew this year, and one person who has just completed the apprentice program. This group representing the up and coming firefighting workforce includes 5 women and 2 men, demonstrating successful efforts to recruit more women into wildland fire.

The Eldorado National Forest has a very active fire recruiting program which uses women firefighters as recruiters and role models. Images of women firefighters are intentionally used in outreach materials and the basic 40 hour fire academy offered at the forest aims for 50:50 participation. According to a forest service database, women comprised approximately 13% of the permanent firefighting workforce, and 34% of the temporary workforce this summer.

The Big Hill Helitack program has evolved since it was established in 1962, using different types of helicopters and firefighting techniques over the years. It was originally based out of Big Hill in the center of the forest, but has moved approximately 5 air miles to the Pacific helispot for easier access to administrative offices. Big Hill Helitack is one of the most active helibases in the region which offers an excellent training experience as part of the apprentice program.

Photo of helicopter landing in meadow to hookup the bucket.

Photo of 2 firefighters bucking up a fallen log on a fire.

Photo of 3 firefighters with smoky vista in the background.

Photo from inside of helicopter looking out over the shoulder of a firefighter at a smoke column.