The Wenatchee Rappel crew was first formed in 1971, in Chelan, WA under the name Wiley Coyotes, but the name was changed to the Chelan Smokesliders after the first year. The first rappels began in 1973 with Chelan being one of only two operational crews nationally. The other rappel base was the Santiam crew based out of central Oregon. The Chelan Smokesliders first trained at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, while the Santiam crew had their training at the Redmond Air Center with the Redmond Smokejumpers.
The Santiam crew had the first rappel fire on July 21st, 1973 on the Garrison Butte Fire on the Deschutes National Forest. The Chelan Smokesliders came in a close second, rappelling the East Mission Creek Fire on July 28th.
From 1983-1987, funding for rappelling was revoked and the crew reverted back to helitack. When the crew returned to rappelling in 1987, they did so under the name Lake Chelan Rappellers. In the year 2000, the Lake Chelan Rappellers moved to a more central location in East Wenatchee and changed their name yet again to the Wenatchee Valley Rappellers. Since its inception, the program has had only four base managers: Tar Lesmeister (the godfather of rappelling), Kyle Engstrom, Patti Jones and Mike Davis (current).
The Big Change of 2009
Thomas "TJ" Marovich 1989-2009
In 2009 the rappel community suffered its first and only rappel fatality. The incident took place during a proficiency rappel at a helibase on the Backbone Fire in northern California. The rookie rappeller's name was Thomas (TJ) Marovich. The incident was the result of components on the harness being replaced and reassembled incorrectly. The fatal accident sparked the Washington Office to shut down the rappel program nationally until further review could be done. The Washington Office instituted universal, standardized training requirements for all programs, as well as making alterations to the set up of the harness components and instituted changes in the rappel sequence.
Region 6 was the only region that was able to meet the requirements and stand its programs up for the 2010 season. A major factor of why that was possible is because Region 6 began bringing all their rappel crews together and completing their rookie training in an academy environment in 2000, inadvertently instituting its universal standards about a decade before it would end up as a national requirement.
Since 2010, rappel crews outside of Region 6 have stood their programs back up and the rappel community is now a universally trained, national program, rather than individual regional ones.
There are currently 13 rappel crews nationally. In 2015, the Wenatchee Valley Rappellers hosted the first ever Forest Service Short-Haul Program. It has since evolved into its' own program consisting of a 10 person crew, highly trained and specialized in emergency medical short-haul extraction. Today the Wenatchee Valley Airbase consists of the Rappel and Short-Haul programs combined, operating four helicopters and managing 38 crew members. Although the rappel crew and short-haul crew share the same roof, we do not cross train between the two programs, but continue to share an enormous amount of pride and uphold the highest standards of excellence.