How Utah’s new ‘helitack’ program aims to help crews attack wildfires faster

Jun 12, 2024, 5:13 PM | Updated: 6:50 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — As we move into the heat of wildfire season, Utah has a new tool designed to knock down those fires faster.

The state’s Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands demonstrated its new “helitack” program Wednesday morning at the Spanish Fork Municipal Airport, where it will be based.

The program features an 8-member crew of firefighters who will be transported by helicopter to the front lines of a wildfire.

Nick Marsella is one of them.

“Things out in the West Desert, up on the Wasatch Front – places like that where it’s hard to get vehicles and it can take a really long time to hike in – that’s our bread and butter,” Marsella said.

The crew showed Utah reporters how the program would work in a real firefighting scenario. The helicopter takes off with crew members on board and travels to the scene of a fire. Once they arrive, the helicopter hovers above the ground as crew members climb out. Then, the helicopter takes off again as the firefighters rush to attack the wildfire on the front lines.

A new helitack program for Utah fire crews means they can make it to the frontlines of the fire faster. (KSL TV)

“We’ll have the capability to deliver those firefighters rapidly, be able to offload them, hook the bucket up, and the aircraft will go back and support the firefighters,” said Mike Melton, deputy state fire management officer over the aviation program in the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

Officials said the initial attack phase of a wildfire is critical.

“Our goal is to catch them all before they get big and catastrophic,” Marsella said.

The helicopter can go anywhere in Utah. Melton said the state is paying just under half a million dollars total – $3,500 a day – for constant access to the chopper. There’s also an hourly fee of $1,400 for using it.

But Melton said the cost is worth it.

“If we can prevent one fire from getting big by good successful initial attack,” he said, “it paid for the program.”

Firefighters have already used the helicopter on two wildfires this season. Officials said it’s patterned after a similar helitack program that the Bureau of Land Management has. But unlike the federal program, this helicopter won’t be shared among other states, Melton said. It’s just for Utah.

Firefighters hope the new tool will help Utah step up its game as this summer gets hotter and drier.

“Do I think that we’re going to have a busy year? It’s feeling that way,” Melton said. “We’ll take it as it comes.”

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How Utah’s new ‘helitack’ program aims to help crews attack wildfires faster