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Helitack wildland firefighters stationed at Steamboat Springs Airport

Members of the Black Hills Helitack team wait to be dispatched to wildfire at the Steamboat Springs Airport on Thursday morning.
Eleanor C. Hasenbeck

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS– When the Black Hills Helitack team is called to a wildfire, they are expected to be in the air and on their way to the scene in their Type 3 helicopter within 10 minutes. They keep the helicopter fueled, fire equipment at the ready and personal belongings packed at all times.

Since last week, about 10 wildland firefighters with the Helitack team and Timberline Helicopters have been on call and ready to go at Steamboat Springs Airport. Two helicopters and their support vehicles are also on standby at the airport.

“The region decided that because of the Badger (Creek) Fire and the fire activity around here and limited resources, that they would put us in Steamboat,” said firefighter Matt Esser. “We’re close to Craig, and we can go over the mountains if we need to. It’s kind of centralized.”

They’ve been called to four fires in the area, including wildfires near Craig and Yampa that ignited last week, though they were asked to stand down and return home after their services were not needed at the Yampa Fire.

“But we’ve been ready for a hundred,” firefighter Todd Grabow quipped.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Black Hills Helitack team, which is based out of Custer, South Dakota, is able to perform a number of functions that fight fires and provide support to crews. The helicopter is able to carry water and ignite smaller fires to create fuel breaks to slow down wildfire. It’s also used to help incident commanders get a bird’s eye view of a fire, and it can shuttle crews, food and firefighting supplies to remote fires.

They follow the weather. Because fire danger in South Dakota is minimal right now in comparison to the Routt County area, they’re stationed in Steamboat. They’ve been spending evenings in campsites and at local hotels.

While they are waiting for calls, the helitack team completes training and drills. In their time off, they’ve been able to explore Steamboat, making use of the Yampa Valley Core Trail and the hot springs. This weekend, they joined in at the airport’s pancake breakfast.

“We are being very well taken care of,” firefighter Bailey Exton said with a laugh.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@steamboattoday.com or follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.


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