Grand Canyon Helitack Crew Receives National Award

Grand Canyon | Dean Andersen

A helicopter crew that fights fires and provides medical aid at Arizona's most famous attraction is receiving national recognition.

On July 25, the Grand Canyon Helitack Crew was awarded the 2015 National Wildfire Coordinating Group Wildfire Emergency Medical Award for the crew's outstanding and consistent work in the field. 

The crew, which is based out of Flagstaff, works to provide emergency medical aid and contain wildfires both locally — including in Grand Canyon National Park — and nationally. In addition, crew members train students to respond to emergencies, and the crew works with parks and forests to conduct maintenance plans, rescue operations and searches.

Last year, the crew spent 149 days away from its station, but Eric C. Graff, the lead member of the Grand Canyon Helitack Crew, said workdays vary in labor and intensity. 

“Some days we work from sunup to sundown,” Graff said. “We provide medical support for wildfire emergencies, as well as park logistical missions to move people and cargo in and out of the Canyon.”

This year, the crew has been heavily involved with managing the Fuller Fire at the Canyon's North Rim since it began in June. Wildfires can be a dangerous, but the blaze is also playing a beneficial role, Graff said.

“We’re expecting it to continue but benefit our ecological system in the North Rim for the next month or two, “ Graff said. The increased humidity and rain in the North Rim has reduced the blaze's intensity, but Graff said he suspects it will continue to burn for the next few weeks or months. 

The national award honored the crew for its exceptional short-haul program, which involves transporting one or more people suspended beneath a helicopter. Graff said the short-haul preparation takes under 30 minutes, and as little as 10 minutes, to arrive and assist an individual in crisis. The flight crew, which typically consists of a pilot, a spotter, a short-hauler and a medical specialist, then works to load the patient and transport him or her for medical care.

The crew used its short-haul skills to provide emergency evacuations to at least two critically injured firefighters last year. In one case, crew members rescued a firefighter who had a broken ankle. “It was several miles to hike out, and they thought they would do more injury sending a land crew, so they requested a short-haul rescue,” Graff said.

The helitack crew is working towards expanding its short-haul program by training interagency partners to drastically reduce pickup times and expose fewer workers to dangerous environments. Without the helitack workers, it could take up to four hours to reach someone by vehicle in the Grand Canyon.

— Isabel Menzel

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