From cribbage to wildfire in just 5 minutes

Inside a Helitack crew’s fast response to wildland fires.

  • Helicopter pilot Kenny Stewart and helicopter manager Ben Teske make radio contact with ground forces on the way to a fire.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Crewmembers pack up tools, gas and oil to load onto the helicopter.

    Jasper Gibson
  • A Washington Department of Natural Resources helicopter takes off from a landing zone after refueling.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Micheal Herbert walks through a burned forest.

    Jasper Gibson
  • The Ahtanum Hand Crew rests after completing the line around a fire in Anacortes, Washington.

    Jasper Gibson
  • A crewmember shows off a freshly inked "Smokey the Bear" tattoo.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Crewmembers access a fire near Mt. St. Helens, in southern Washington

    Jasper Gibson
  • Colton Witt takes a breath on a fire in Anacortes, Washington.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Squad boss Andrew Venema cuts down a hazard tree.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Demi Garcia calls in a bucket drop (left). A helicopter flies over grasslands in Central Washington (right).

    Jasper Gibson
  • The Washington Helitack crew reads maps during a training session.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Crewmembers avoid the heat at a helibase by spending downtime in a van.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Jacob Martin and the crew clean the belly of one of the "Huey" Helicopters.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Crewmembers play cribbage while they wait for the next orders to come down the line.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Crewmembers wait for the next call (left). Tools hang at the helicopter maintenance hanger in Olympia, Washington.

    Jasper Gibson
  • Light filters through smoke from a fire near Mt. St. Helens.

    Jasper Gibson

 

In the remote areas of Washington state, when a flame starts in the dry season, it can quickly turn into blaze. Eating up dried needles and brittle grasses, it fans out and envelops more fuel, sometimes aided by the wind and beating sun. Time is of essence for wildland firefighters, and Washington’s Helitack crew aims to get the better of the flames by departing by helicopter at the start of a fire within just five minutes. Photographer Jasper Gibson, a wildland firefighter himself, captured the routine of his crew during the summer of 2016 with a pocket-sized camera.

Helitack firefighting in Washington started in 1960s, with fragile-looking helicopters holding just 50 gallons of water to dump on fires. Today’s helicopters drop hundreds of gallons at a time, while firefighters work at the fire’s level on Washington’s prairies and montane forests. Amid flames and gusts of wind, the crew clears brush, digs trenches and directs wildfires to prevent their spread. The on-call nature of the Helitack crew means that firefighters’ bags are always packed and at the ready. Sometimes, as Gibson’s photos show, that can mean a lot of down time. “Forget your life at home, at least for four to five months,” Gibson says. “Your coworkers become your family, your duffle bag becomes your wardrobe and you wake up every morning not knowing where you will be for the next two weeks.”

— Anna V. Smith