A 14-person crew and one Bell 212-HP helicopter stationed at Bald Mountain Helitack Base off Highway 108, across from Little Sweden in the Mi-Wok Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, is an important part of the U.S. Forest Service's firefighting fleet during the hectic summer months.

It's one of 32 Forest Service helitack crews around the United States, 16 of which are based in California. From the centrally located heliport atop Bald Mountain, the team can reach any point in the Stanislaus within about 15 minutes.

"This crew is important because not only can it put out small fires quickly, but it can also transport gear and other crews to remote areas," said Stanislaus Forest Fire Chief Chris Schow while standing on the base's helicopter landing pad Friday.

The crew of full-time and seasonal Forest Service employees performed drills and tested equipment at the base Friday to prepare for what's expected to be another busy fire season.

Last week, the helicopter crew dropped gear and supplies to a unit of 10 "smokejumpers," wildland firefighters who parachute into action, who were assigned to battle a remote lightning-caused fire in the Mokelumne Wilderness Area.

The Bald Mountain team, established in 1962, spent nearly every day last summer battling blazes on public lands across the Western U.S. before finishing the season at home fighting the 402-square-mile Rim Fire - the Sierra Nevada's largest wildfire on record.

The Bell 212-HP helicopter and two pilots stationed at Bald Mountain are provided by Clovis-based Rogers Helicopters Inc. each year under a $626,000 contract with the Forest Service. It's less expensive in the long run to rent the aircraft when needed in the summer and avoid maintenance and personnel costs when the equipment isn't used during the slower winter months, Schow explained.

"We need this helicopter every year from June to mid-October," he said. "We don't need it if everything goes right in the winter."

For the full story, see the June 18, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.