Trio Fights Fire From Above, And Below


A trio of former Longhorn sports standouts discovers fun in rappelling 250 feet directly underneath whirling helicopter blades to a raging fire.

"It's a blast, exciting," said Britton Quinlan. "It's our job, but it's also thrilling."


Former Payson High School student athletes Preston Mercer (right, front) and Byron Quinlan (right, back) prepare for a practice rappelling mission June 17 at Payson Municipal Airport.

Quinlan, his older brother Byron and Preston Mercer are members of a Tonto National Forest Helitack firefighting crew, usually first on the scene of a wildfire.

In the 1990s, all three were star Longhorn football players who now use their athletic abilities to excel in one of the most dangerous of fire suppression occupations.

Mercer has been a member of the Tonto rappellers for 11 years. Britton is in his third season and Byron is beginning his second.

As wildland firefighters, they are transported, two at a time, to remote fire scenes by helicopters. Once there, they drop their gear and rappel off the skids of the hovering aircraft to uncontrolled blazes.

According to Byron, the terrain often dictates how far a firefighter must rappel.

"It can be 100 to 250 feet," he said. "On steep, uneven terrain it gets longer."

Once on land, the firefighters are expected to be self-sufficient for 36 hours. They must also be capable of hiking several miles to a pickup point with a pack weight of up to 100 pounds.

Due to the demands of the occupation, helitack crew members must be well trained, physically fit and have sharp minds.

Before being accepted into a United States Forest Service (USFS) rappel academy, they must pass a physical requirements test that can include a distance run with a pack and strength tests.

After being accepted, rappellers begin their training in the classroom, and later move outside for several days of ground training. During the final phases of their training they learn proper rappel procedures and techniques.

When not fighting fires, the local crew practices daily at the Payson airport.

A June 17 practice session turned hairy when Brian Frisbee -- a member of Tonto team -- got hung up on the rappelling rope about 30 feet under the helicopter.

Realizing he could not go up or down, Frisbee made the sprawled eagle sign to the pilot that he was in trouble. Minutes later, the pilot lowered the helicopter to where the rappeller could reach the ground and detach from the rope.

"(Getting hung up in the rope) doesn't happen often," Mercer said. "But it's good training."

Helicopters were first used on wildland fires in 1947 in Southern California. Fire managers found they could rapidly transport personnel and cargo to a fire and remain on scene to perform a variety of tasks. Today, the USFS has more than 500 helicopters contracted for use.

For Mercer, working for the USFS is a year-round occupation he took up after graduating from Northern Arizona University.

When the fire season ends, Byron Quinlan said he might return to his public school teaching profession. Britton Quinlan is a ski instructor in Vail, Colo. during the winter months.

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