Rainbow Gathering, Fourth of July activity prompt wildfire helicopters at airport
The cavalry has arrived. As part of a prepositioning strategy for the upcoming fire season, two helicopters contracted by the U.S. Forest Service — one from Minuteman Aviation, Inc. and another from Rainier Heli International — were recently stationed at the Steamboat Springs Airport as part of a broader Type 3 Incident Management Team.
Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said prepositioning for wildfires is informed by human activity, and said it’s common to station firefighting crews in areas where they anticipate a busy hunting season, for example, but he assures this year’s decision to station crews in Steamboat is not based on any single variable, such as the Rainbow Gathering, as some have speculated.
The 50th anniversary Rainbow Gathering will take place near Adams Park in North Routt County and could potentially bring tens of thousands of visitors into the National Forest.
“There’s this large unauthorized gathering,” said Voos. “With that comes a lot of additional visitors to the forest. So because of that, and throw in the Fourth of July holiday, and a very, very busy time for just recreation and forest visitation in general, that’s why we have the type three incident management team that is there for wildfire response if necessary.”
Voos said prepositioning is fairly common and last year there was a similar team from the Forest Service stationed at the Steamboat Airport.
Last year was drier and fire season started much earlier. The Morgan Creek Fire, which burned just 15 miles north of town, ignited on July 9, 2021 and forced evacuations shortly after.
Voos assured that the crews of the two helicopters will be completely focused on fighting wildfires and are not a part of the National Incident Management Team already stationed in the area that has been working closely with law enforcement and includes specialists who have responded to previous years’ Rainbow Gatherings.
Touching down on June 21, 2022, the K-1200, or K-MAX, is one of about 20 of the grasshopeer-shaped aircraft operating in the United States.
Designed for carrying external loads of up to 6,000 pounds, the KMAX utilizes a side-by-side pair of intermeshing rotors that help the helicopter hover stably even when lifting thousands of pounds of water.
“If you ever saw a slow-motion video of these blades in flight, you’d never get in one of these things,” said pilot Gus Lapthorne.
The KMAX uses a cargo hook to lift a large collapsible sleeve known simply as a “water bucket,” which expands to hold 700 gallons. The water bucket hangs about 180 feet underneath the aircraft and draws water with a pump.
Lapthorne says his helicopter has pulled water out of lakes, rivers, the ocean and even swimming pools out of people’s backyards.
The most recent helicopter to station at Bob Adams is a Bell 407 from Minuteman Aviation, which is meant for transporting firefighting personnel in and out of various strategic points near wildfires.
The 407 touched down on Saturday, June 25, and unloaded several members of the Forest Service’s Type 3 Incident Management team.
Where these helicopters are stationed depends on conditions that can change abruptly, so neither of their crews know how long they’ll be in Steamboat Springs. They could be gone in a couple of weeks or a few months, or may not be needed at all.
Mike Swinsick, the chief at North Routt Fire Protection District, said the current fire danger in the area is high but “on the lower end of the scale.”
Steamboat Springs Fire District Chief Chuck Cerasoli describes the current conditions as wetter and greener than this time last year when Stage 2 fire restrictions were already in place.
“I think things are drying out at a pace that’s at least not super concerning at this point,” said Cerasoli, who also cautioned against assuming everything is going to be fine. “We’re all a little hesitant to be too excited about anything.”
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