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Wildfire

Meet the Colorado helicopter medic trained to rescue wildland firefighters

Unique federal, state, military and civilian partnerships grow from Gypsum’s High Altitude Army National Guard Training Site, creating a firefighting unicorn like Aaron Zinser

Aaron Zinser flies with Army National Guard crew in this UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. The team's goal is to respond within 15 minutes for takeoff and arrive on scene within roughly an hour at any Colorado location. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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GYPSUM — Don’t ask Aaron Zinser about which job he’s working. The answer gets complicated very quickly. 

The 37-year-old Eagle County paramedic is a firefighter who can provide medical care on the frontlines of wildfire. He’s also certified to care for patients aboard military helicopters. He’s also a search and rescue medic who deploys with mountain rescue teams and a volunteer with Vail Mountain Rescue. And he’s certified by the National Guard as a Colorado Hoist Rescue Technician, which means he’s the medic who dangles on hoists below helicopters, treating injured hikers, skiers and climbers that search and rescue teams pluck from the mountains. 

“I have a few hats and sometimes it’s complicated knowing which one I’m wearing, especially when I’m wearing two at the same time,” says Zinser, who is temporarily based out of the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site — or HAATS — in Gypsum, caring for injured firefighters on a Blackhawk helicopter with a National Guard medevac team out of Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base. 

Zinser’s rare combination of skills makes him a sort-of unicorn in today’s firefighting world. And he’s part of Colorado’s aggressive attack on wildfires burning across the state. 

Aaron Zinser. Firefighting paramedic Aaron Zinser at the High-Altitude ARNG Aviation Training Site (HAATS). (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Earlier this month Gov. Jared Polis authorized the Colorado National Guard to use two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and a twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook to help the State Emergency Operations Center at major fires in Colorado. 

Zinser is part of a team stationed at the high-altitude training center at the Eagle County Regional Airport. The medevac team — two Black Hawk pilots, a medically trained hoist technician, a hoist operator and mechanic and Zinser — can respond within an hour to an injured firefighter anywhere in Colorado.

But the team’s mission is to cover any fire in the Rocky Mountain region, working with the federal Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which includes Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The HAATS, with its classrooms and dormitory and white-floored hangar for Black Hawks, Chinooks and UH-72 Lakotas, has been fostering unique civilian-military partnerships since its inception in 1986.

The facility, which offers “graduate level”  multi-day courses in mountain flying to military helicopter pilots and crews, has been providing firefighting and search and rescue training and support since 1995.

“This is such a cool thing to have in our backyard. Without these guys here, I do not think we could have the kinds of programs and partnerships we do,” said Sgt. A.J. Youngerman, the senior medic who dangles below Black Hawks to rescue injured firefighters. 

Zinser doesn’t dangle on this mission. He provides care for patients inside the helicopter. He does ride the hoist on search-and-rescue missions though. But when it is a pure military exercise — like the National Guard’s work rescuing injured firefighters — he only works inside the helicopter. It’s a complicated system involving a blend of state and federal responsibility and liability.

“It’s nice for us to have Aaron here because I get to learn a bit from him. We get to talk shop and share our experiences and if I can be an asset to him that’s what I’m here for,” Youngerman said. “We bring this whole platform — the Black Hawk helicopter with the hoist system and hoist crew — just so that we can be sure we can get guys anywhere.” 

Aaron Zinser flies with Army National Guard crew in this UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Those Chinooks can carry up to 2,000 gallons in collapsible buckets. The Black Hawks can also carry water as well as deliver medical care to the front lines of a remote fire. Since Zinser and the rotating medevac team assembled for their regionwide mission on Aug. 20, they have not responded to any calls for help from the nearly 3,000 firefighters battling 11 wildfires in Colorado. 

Not getting any calls is fine with Zinser.

The types of calls that require a helicopter extraction would not be pretty. It would be a firefighter injured by a falling tree or a bucked chainsaw. Or a health emergency related to the stress, heat and smoke. The Black Hawks can carry three patients, but the team says they could extract as many injured firefighters as needed in a pinch. 

“Optimally we don’t want to be deployed because that usually means someone is hurt pretty bad but it’s nice to know we are available if needed,” Zinser said. 

With Aaron Zinser, center, are Army National Guardsmen Haidar Osman, Jesse Bavender, A.J. Youngerman, and Raymond Schultz, at the nose of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CORRECTION: This story was updated Sept. 1, 2020, at 2:50 p.m. to correct the year the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site was formed.


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