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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Looking to ease summer demand, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is taking on firefighting with a new piece of equipment

UPDATED: Wed., May 11, 2022

“I’ve caught eight fish since they started,” said Steve Skeen, of Otis Orchards, on Friday as he fishes while watching Rescue 3, a Super Huey, try out their new Bambi Bucket at Hauser Lake. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office purchased the bucket over the winter and is getting crews trained to fight wildfires.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
“I’ve caught eight fish since they started,” said Steve Skeen, of Otis Orchards, on Friday as he fishes while watching Rescue 3, a Super Huey, try out their new Bambi Bucket at Hauser Lake. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office purchased the bucket over the winter and is getting crews trained to fight wildfires. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office will venture into firefighting duties this summer after purchasing a water bucket that attaches to one of its search and rescue helicopters.

On Friday morning, Rescue 3, a Super Huey helicopter, did training runs on Hauser Lake. Pilot David Valenti, under the instruction of training pilot Jack Scanlon, dipped the bucket into the lake to fill it, then flew to a wetland next to the boat launch to dump it.

Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office helicopter program, said what’s called a Bambi bucket was purchased over the winter, and the group’s volunteer pilots are now training to use it. “They’re working on their qualifying now,” he said.

The bucket purchased, not the largest size, cost $18,000. The size of the bucket used depends on the lifting capacity of the helicopter it will be attached to.

The bucket in use Friday was attached with a 50-foot cable. Ellis said the pilots would be training with the bucket on varying lengths of cable, but the 50-foot length works well because it reduces pendulum swing and improves accuracy.

“You’re used to looking out ahead,” he said of the pilots. “Now you’ve got to keep your visual approach and also be looking down.”

Ellis said his unit works closely with local fire departments. Rescue 3 is equipped with a hoist system and can drop a paramedic in to help an injured person, then lift both the medic and the injured person out. Six of the program’s volunteer medics and one volunteer pilot work for the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

He said he’s aware of the issues the local departments and districts have with fires every summer and was looking for a way to help. The goal is for the Sheriff’s Office to step in early in a fire before other resources arrive, he said.

“There’s times it would be advantageous for us to be able to help with the initial attack,” he said. “It seems like every fire season is worse, and resources are in short supply.”

Ellis said Rescue 3, the only helicopter among the four helicopters the Sheriff’s Office has with the necessary equipment to carry the Bambi bucket, will only be for initial fire response. The helicopter’s job will be to hopefully hold fires at bay or slow their advance until other aircraft can get there. “We have no intention of getting into long-term fire suppression,” he said.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the area is usually well supported by aircraft managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

“We launch aircraft from Deer Park or Coeur d’Alene right on initial dispatch,” he said.

However, at the height of fire season there can be times when all aircraft are busy and none are immediately available for a new fire. That’s when having the firefighting ability of the Sheriff’s Office helicopter can be the most useful, he said. “It’s certainly a resource that’s going to improve the initial attack capabilities of a lot of local fire districts.”

Schaeffer said he’s grateful for Ellis working so hard to support local firefighting efforts.

“Dave engaged the fire services years ago with a willingness to help,” he said. “This has been a long-term goal of his. We’re very humbled by the willingness of Dave to take on a whole new mission.”

Though it’s early in the year, Schaeffer is already concerned because of the current drought predictions for Spokane County and the fires currently raging through the Southwest, particularly Arizona and New Mexico.

“Based on what we’re seeing, we’re planning for another bad fire season,” he said.

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