Helitack Team Gets First Jump On Fires

Tonto team features three Payson men

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Dangling by a rope, they drop 250 feet from the sky into the abyss of hell -- the unrelenting flames of a raging forest fire.

Theirs is a job fraught with danger, but the men who risk their lives each day to be among the first responders to a forest fire by rappelling out of a helicopter are amazingly matter-of-fact about the feat.

"They've got their procedures and it's pretty routine," Casa Grande special education teacher and former Payson resident Byron Quinlan said. "We've gone over it a million times and we're real comfortable doing it."

Quinlan, 28, his brother Brit Quinlan, 25, and Preston Mercer, 27 -- all of whom grew up in Payson -- are part of the eight-person Tonto Helitack unit, one of 96 such units stationed throughout the United States.

"We're a rapid response, initial attack crew, and basically what they want us to do is be off the ground as soon as possible after a fire call and get to the fire and try to get it out," Mercer, the team leader, said.

That means landing their helicopter near the fire, but that's often impossible. That's where the rappelling part comes in.

Air power was responsible for the rapid control of the Diamond Fire near Sunflower, and Mercer and his crew were the first on the scene, according to Dan Eckstein, assistant fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, who coordinated the air attack. That fire came within 200 to 300 yards of homes, making the rapid response of the Helitack team even more critical.

"I was at the station and they took off, and they were even there a couple minutes before we were over it with the fixed wing," Eckstein said. "On that one, they dropped a few people off at the heel of the fire where it started so they could start working one of the flanks."

For Mercer, firefighting is a full-time job. He's been at it for 10 years, and he's fought some of the biggest, including the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

"I put myself through college fighting fires -- got a degree in hotel and restaurant management," Mercer said. "But I didn't want to be stuck at a desk, so now I'm full time with the Forest Service.

The Quinlan brothers are seasonal firefighters, and consider being members of Tonto Helitack a great summer job.

"With teaching, it's kind of hard to get a decent summer job," Byron Quinlan said.

The crew will be stationed at Payson airport during the most dangerous part of the Rim country fire season.

"When it's critical fire season around here, we're basically staying on the Tonto," Mercer said. "Once we get some rain, when the monsoons come, then they let us go elsewhere. Usually we end up in Washington or Montana."

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