Part II: Fighting fire from the air, Forrest Towne explores aviation in his wildland fire career

Senior Forestry Technician Forrest Towne completed his second season with the Navajo Region Helitack Crew last month. (Loretta Yerian/NHO)

Senior Forestry Technician Forrest Towne completed his second season with the Navajo Region Helitack Crew last month. (Loretta Yerian/NHO)

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. — Fighting fires. Sucking smoke. Working hard in an inferno of heat. You’ve been on assignment for four days and you have 10 more to go. You’re ready for a hot shower and solid food, you’re tired. But you’re still smiling. You’re a wildland firefighter.

There’s many different reasons why a person would get into fighting wildfires, but no matter how you got there, everyone remembers their first fire.

Forrest Towne is a senior forestry technician for the Navajo Region Helitack Crew, based in Fort Defiance, Arizona. He was 18-years-old when he went on his first fire assignment.

“We had a local fire here — it was my first fire, they called it the Wide Ruins Fire. I got the call and showed up. In an hour we were out there and I was sucking in smoke and my eyes were burning. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m getting myself into,’ but it worked out,” Towne said.

At 32-years-old Towne is working on his twelfth year in wildland firefighting.

Since that first fire Towne has fought fire in multiple states and with different agencies. He started his fire career by following his brother’s examples, working seasonal jobs on a Type II hand crew.

“I got into it when my brothers were doing it for a summer job as well,” Towne said. “They were doing it just to make some money. I figured they were my big brothers and I always followed them around … that kind of got me into it.”

Towne’s brothers also worked on Type II crews, which is where most wildland firefighters start.

“That’s where you get your general experience, your training,” Towne said.

Eventually Towne left his initial Type II crew and started work on a Type I (hotshot) crew.

He then made a big change, moving to a little town named Bailey, Colorado, located just outside of Denver. While there, he went to work for a local fire department and over the next three years he worked in a combination of structure/wildland firefighting roles.

“I enjoyed it. I met a lot of people outside (the reservation) being non-native,” he said. “Going from state to state, they fight fire different so you kind of have to adjust and see how they look at fighting fire. I’ve learned a lot.”

In 2017, Towne moved to Zuni, Colorado to work in a different fire position before finally transitioning to Fort Defiance to work in the aviation program, having been selected as a crew member for the Navajo Region Helitack Crew.

He was selected for the crew in 2018. This season, Towne served as a senior crewmember, responsible for supervising tasks selected for helitack crewmembers.

What is a helitack crew?

The Navajo Region Helitack Crew is one of nine national helitack programs managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), two of which are managed by tribes. It is the only program in BIA fire management that has a career ladder that takes an entry level firefighter and develops them throughout their career to become a national program manager.

Helitack Crews are made of 7-12 crew members who work with pilots and maintenance crews to respond to and support wildfires. In addition to becoming advanced firefighters, crew members specialize in aviation safety and are responsible for developing crew and cargo manifests, briefing all passengers on flight safety, correctly loading and unloading cargo and marshalling helicopters during takeoff and landing operations. They are also relied upon to cut landing zones to allow helicopters safe access to remote areas, perform aerial ignitions for prescribed burns and providing transport services for special projects such as reseeding burned areas, according to the BIA. Additional responsibilities include facilitating tribal officials and administrative flights, wilderness study flights, search and rescues and forest management flights.

During the 2019 season, the Navajo Region Helitack Crew responded to fires in Montana, Utah, California and Arizona. They flew 181 hours of flight time from May 1 – Sept. 12. The 10 person crew had staggered days off and had seven to eight personnel daily throughout the week to staff the A Star 350 B-3 helicopter.

When the crew responds, Towne said they first size up the fire, relaying information to dispatch. They also guide in the helitack module to meet the crew and select an appropriate area for the helicopter to land and re-fuel.

Towne said he wanted to be a helitack crew member because he wanted to fly.

“I had never really flown in an aircraft,” he said. “I have, but it was small (flights), from point A to point B.”

Towne quickly found that there is a big difference in flying for fun and flying for work.

“Working around it, there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “If you’ve never flown before it’s something to get used to – if you’re not used to heights you may not be comfortable.”

Towne fell in love with it.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said. “When I got on (the crew) I got to see places that really nobody gets to see. I enjoy that part of it.”

There are challenges, including being on assignments for long periods of time. While Towne does not have children, he said it can be difficult to be away from family, knowing you’re missing holidays and special occasions.

“You want your family to be ok when you’re gone but that’s not really guaranteed and you miss out on a lot of stuff — weddings, birthdays, graduations,” he said. “But this is something that you’re committed to and if you’re not committed to it then well… I enjoy what I do.”

For those interested in a job in wildland firefighting, on any type of crew, Towne said his advice is to try it for a season.

“If you’re not used to arduous work, long hours or bad food or you’re not used to being outdoors it makes things hard to adjust,” he said.

Towne said he plans to continue his training and advance his career in wildland firefighting and aviation. He said it’s in his blood now — the adrenaline, excitement and anticipation of every day.

“I think it’s just coming into work and getting ready for the day, not knowing where you’re going to end up on that given day,” he said. “That unknown of not knowing where your job is going to be that day.”

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