Firefighter's death in training sparks review of procedures

Firefighter's death in training sparks review of procedures

The elite airborne firefighters who rappel down ropes dangling from helicopters to battle wildfires don't need to be told they have dangerous jobs.

But that danger was punctuated by the death of Thomas "T.J." Marovich Jr., 20, of Hayward, Calif., who died late Tuesday morning near Willow Creek, Calif., after falling an estimated 200 feet during a training exercise.

The crew had been assigned to the 6,324-acre Backbone fire at the southern flank of the Klamath National Forest, east of McKinleyville. The fire is now contained by a fire line.

"They do an inherently dangerous job," said Backbone fire spokeswoman Robin Cole, part of a national incident command team. It is the same team that responded to Iron 44 fire incident last year in which nine firefighters, including six from Jackson and Josephine counties, died after a firefighting helicopter crashed last August in Northern Californa..

"Unfortunately, it seems like we're starting to see these terrible things happen more often," she said.

As a result, firefighting agencies are investigating the cause of the incidents in hopes of preventing more in the future, she said.

One 16-member "helitack" crew, which often attacks fires by rappelling from helicopters, is based on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The firefighter's death has been devastating to the region's firefighting community, said veteran repelling firefighter Amanda Lucas, 38, now the aviation officer for both the Rogue River-Siskyou and the Umpqua forests and acting aviation officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District. Hailing from Grants Pass, she served on the local rappelling crew from 1996 through 2004.

Many people who rappel from helicopters to fight fires start out as college students looking for a job to fit around their college schedule, she said.

"It's physically demanding but also physically rewarding," she said. "You feel part of a larger effort that is doing something important — defending homes and resources like trees and wildlife. That appeals to a lot of folks."

Like Cole, she noted the job is challenging since rappellers can descend from as high as 250 feet above the ground, although she added the distance is usually much shorter. Rappellers always wear a harness, she said.

Marovich was a second-year apprentice at the Modoc National Forest, but was working with the Chester Helitack Crew from the Lassen National Forest when the accident occurred, officials said.

Initial reports indicate he died after falling about 200 feet during the rappel training from a Bell 212 helicopter at the helibase near Willow Creek.

"Tom was the embodiment of the apprentice program," said Laurence Crabtree, ranger of the Big Valley Ranger District where Marovich worked, in a prepared statement. "He loved everything about fire, the organization, the equipment and the fire family. This is a tragic accident and huge loss to the Forest Service family. Tom will be greatly missed."

A U.S. Forest Service accident investigation team arrived late Wednesday evening to work with the National Transportation Safety Board in investigating Marovich's death. Counselors were also brought in to offer counseling to those who witnessed the incident or who worked with the victim.

Marovich was give advanced life support treatment immediately after he fell, officials said.

"He received medical attention right away," Cole stressed. "They tried to do a chest tube and an IV at the scene."

However, he died at the helibase before he could be transferred to a hospital, she said.

Officials declined to talk about the specific incident.

"We want to let the investigation play itself out," Cole said.

Most helicopters carrying U.S. Forest Service helitack crews are contracted to the agency but officials at the Backbone fire did not know the name of the firm whose helicopter was involved in the incident.

The rappel training is required training of helitack crews at a minimum of every 14 days to keep the crews proficient and safety conscious in their work, officials said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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