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Coastal forest firefighters ready to drop in

Forest fire crew members watch a hovering helicopter in Qualicum Beach Tuesday, waiting for their chance to climb aboard. - Steven Heywood
Forest fire crew members watch a hovering helicopter in Qualicum Beach Tuesday, waiting for their chance to climb aboard.
— image credit: Steven Heywood

Be comfortable, follow the safety instructions and don't be complacent.

Those are the three main rules to follow when entering and exiting a hovering helicopter, and part of the lessons learned by forest firefighters Tuesday afternoon at the Qualicum Beach airport.

Forests ministry fire crews from the Coastal Fire region (Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast) were in Qualicum Beach for their annual hover training exercise. For newcomers to the ranks, some more nervous than others, and for veterans of the forest service, the course is part of their training and qualifies them to engage in  similar operations across the country and in the United States.

"We start with a power point presentation, which is where we go over, basically, what make a helicopter fly," said Julian Welp, a crew leader. "And safety, that's the top of the list."

Welp has performed a hover exit many times, he said, noting it comes into play when fighting fires in steep, mountainous train — places where a chopper cannot set down.

New forest firefighter Marc Albert, who works out of Powell River, said the training is an extension of his boot camp training and was a little nervous.

"I haven't done it before, but I think it'll be fine," he said. "You have to follow certain safety precautions."

After a safety briefing and mock exits from a helicopter on the ground, the crews moved to a grassy area of the airfield and did it live.

As the chopper hovered a few feet off the ground, firefighters exited and re-entered, making sure to stay low and not to get the helicopter off balance. Welp added there's no way of telling when such skills would be put into use — but when the occasion does arise, the crews will be ready.

Donna MacPherson, fire information officer with the Coastal Fire Centre in Parksville, said training like this takes place throughout the fire season, and among the crews across the Island and mainland coast. It's this work, she said, that gets B.C. crews noticed.

"We're recognized around the world," she said of the firefighters' prowess. "We've had international groups come here to train and learn what our teams  can do."

She said since B.C. has so much public land to take care of, firefighters here get a lot of practice and real action.

The fire season, MacPherson continued, has already started, with a small forest fire near Pemberton last weekend.

As of Monday at noon, she said, the Coastal Fire centre will implement a ban on all backyard fires. Check with local municipalities, she added, for local burning regulations.

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