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PHOTO BY RACHEL RICE  STAR Flight flight paramedic and crew chief Mike Summers surveys the Public Safety Training Campus on Oct. 18 during a joint training session with Austin Fire Department.
PHOTO BY RACHEL RICE

STAR Flight flight paramedic and crew chief Mike Summers surveys the Public Safety Training Campus on Oct. 18 during a joint training session with Austin Fire Department.

By Rachel Rice

Staff Writer

AUSTIN — STAR Flight aerial rescue program and Austin Fire Department and held a joint training session Oct. 18 at the Public Safety Training Campus in Austin to update the public on their latest tools, tactics and strategies in the ongoing war against wildfires.

Although recent rains have resulted in a cease-fire, of sorts, AFD Battalion Chief Palmer Buck said the agencies must stay sharp on wildfire fighting techniques.

“Coordinating ground and air operations is not easy,” Buck said. “We’re just starting this kind of training with some new people, and we’re hoping to increase the number of training sessions.”

Buck notes that though this past summer didn’t experience as many fires as the summer of 2011, STAR Flight and the AFD are trying to stay on top of their game when it comes to fighting wildfires, especially during this time of year.

“Anytime when there’s winds above 20 or 25 miles per hour and humidity is below 30 percent is wildfire weather,” Buck said, adding that it’s not just summer when people need to be worried. “There’s a lot of days in January and February when you get cold dry fronts. It’s dangerous after freezes when the vegetation is dead and not green; it’s more easily ignited.”

Buck notes that these are particular concerns around the Lake Travis area.

“Our biggest concern area is in Lake Travis and the surrounding area,” ,” Buck said. “That’s what we call a Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. You get homes built into previously uninhabited areas, built into these nice steep hills covered with juniper. We need to try to get better countywide at keeping an eye on WUI interface and get people to cut trees and landscape appropriately so that in the event of a fire, we can distribute fire trucks appropriately.”

Austin Fire Department Captain Randy Denzer recalled the importance of working with STAR Flight in the Lake Travis area last year.

“During the Steiner Ranch fire, we were calling in STAR Flight drops,” Denzer said. “They did a lot of work for us when we were stretched thin. Air flights were critical.”

During the recent training session, firefighters and STAR Flight crewmembers coordinated over headsets and walkie-talkies to get water dropped on a designated location in a field on AFD training grounds using an EC-145 helicopter.

The helicopter used a “Bambi” bucket, which can hold 130 gallons of water and is attached to the helicopter by ropes, to scoop water from one location and then to dump the water on the imaginary fire.

“STAR Flight is a Travis County program, and they were indispensable with help during the Labor Day fires providing the air support we needed,” Buck said, referring to the fires in Bastrop in September of 2011. “It just takes constant communication.”

STAR Flight Program Director Casey Ping added the helicopter has become an essential tool in fighting fires, not just for dumping water but also to get a bird’s eye view.

“We don’t have the same limits as they do,” Ping said, noting the helicopter can go where most firefighters can’t. “We can…take one of the fire guys up to see how best to attack and how best to use resources.”

During training, the water source, the Bambi bucket, drew from was an orange flex tank that the firefighters refer to as “the pumpkin.” The pumpkin, a new piece of equipment for the fire department, can hold 1,000 gallons of water and is easily transported to remote areas and filled to give firefighters an accessible source of water when no others are nearby.

In addition to the pumpkin and the new brushfire truck that the Austin Fire Department practices with, STAR Flight expects to get a new helicopter, a UH-1H, in the near future.

“The new helicopter will have fixed tank and a snorkel to pick up water,” Ping said. “The fixed tank holds 320 gallons, which is more than twice what the Bambi bucket can hold.”

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