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Helitack refers to any fire-fighting technique that incorporates the use of helicopters. The term is a combination of helicopter and attack, and was first printed in 1956 in a Los Angeles (LA) Times news article. The state of California was the first to use helicopters to fight wildfires, with operations dating back to 1947. Today, helitack resources may be used to deliver crews, supplies, or water directly to the source of a fire. While they are largely used to fight wildfires, they may also be used for other types of fire-rescue operations.
In areas where a fire may be hard to reach by land, helitack units help to deliver firefighting crews to the scene. If the copter is able to find a safe place to land, crews can dismount from the ground. If not, they may be forced to rappel from the copter to the ground. Helitack units also bring supplies and equipment to these crews, and help pick up injured firefighters and transport them to an appropriate care facility.
Helitack crews can also provide a high level of support from the air. Some larger units can be equipped with buckets and tanks to dump water onto a fire. Others take images of the fire so firefighters can plan the best course of attack. These crews may also map out remote areas to spot potential fire danger before it becomes an emergency.
One of the primary advantages to helitack resources is that they allow crews to reach fires in remote or inaccessible areas. Roads may not be located near the fire, or it might take the crews too long to reach the fire from the ground. By fighting the fire from the air, helitack units allow crews to minimize damage and stop a fire from spreading over a larger area. This helps to minimize the chance of widespread destruction, and also keeps fires from growing out of control or threatening urban areas.
Individuals who wish to join a helitack team must undergo rigorous training. Even with extensive training, this work is difficult and dangerous due to the unpredictable nature of wildfires. Crews must fly low to the ground in rough terrain, with trees and mountains often getting in the way of safe takeoffs or landings. Changing wind conditions can also cause smoke or flames to make unexpected changes of direction, which threaten both those in the air and on the ground.