ABINGDON, Va. — A firefighting helicopter crew is preparing to head home soon, ending a long, but relatively easy season, but first, they’re stationed in Abingdon to wait for any fires that could ignite in the dry and hot southern Appalachian Mountain region.
The crew of a massive Columbia CH-47D Chinook helicopter has been stationed since last Thursday at Abingdon’s Virginia Highlands Airport. The helicopter and crew, which includes two pilots, maintenance crew and fuel truck driver, have a 150-day contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
Recently, the Forest Service, which manages a number of helicopters across the country during fire season, decided to station a helicopter in Southwest Virginia due to worsening drought conditions.
The Abingdon airport is in a “good, central location,” according to David Crumb, a retired Forest Service employee who now works part-time as a helicopter manager.
Crumb said that as drought conditions continue through the month of October — the region received 2.31 inches of precipitation less than the normal of 2.99 inches in September, according to the National Weather Service — firefighting crews are “trying to get ahead of it.”
So far, no major wildfires have been reported in the Southeast, but the crew in Abingdon said they could get a call at any moment.
Robert Riley, the helicopter’s co-pilot, who will soon fly overseas as a defense contractor, said when the crew is alerted to a fire they have 15 minutes to take off.
With its 2,800 gallon internal water tank, the CH-47D can fly about 140 knots, or more than 160 miles per hour, as the crew heads to the fire.
Coordinating with crews on the ground, and other air support, pilot Perri Hagen said they can quickly douse flames with water.
The Columbia helicopter is perfect for both urban and rural locations, Hagen said, and is ideal for the Tri-Cities area, if there was a local wildfire. The crew can also efficiently maneuver around rural mountainous areas, he said.
To fill up the water tank, all the crew has to do is lower the 12-foot-long, 10-inch diameter hover high-speed pump into a water source, such as a river or lake. The crew then determines where to dump the water, which can be a dangerous task, Hagen said. The weight of the water can knock branches off trees, he added.
The most dangerous aspect of firefighting by air is likely the smoke, Hagen said.
Last fall, Hagen recalled fighting the Camp Fire, the worst in his memory. A total of 45 helicopters, including three from Columbia, battled the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, California. The fire killed 85 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Hagen vividly remembers the heavy smoke that billowed from the fire and the ability to feel the heat through the helicopter’s windows.
“It can be very dangerous,” said Hagen, recalling that it was difficult to see other aircraft at times.
In 2017, Hagen was the lead pilot on the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. It burned 440 square miles.
Columbia’s flight crews typically work 12 days on and 12 days off. A rotating crew comes in when Hagen and the others leave.
Hagen and Riley, both of Phoenix, Arizona, said fire season will likely end this month. This has been one of Hagen’s easiest years, he said, as there have been fewer fires than normal. Prior to arriving in Abingdon, he was stationed in California. The crew began May 1 in Arizona.
Typically, the most challenging fires are fought in the western United States, where the air is often drier, which results in hotter fires, Hagen and Riley said.
Back in 2016, when portions of the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, were destroyed by a large wildfire that ignited in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Hagen said the Columbia crew was stationed in Lynchburg, Virginia. The crew battled an 11,000-acre wildfire in Amherst County.
The Columbia helicopter now stationed at Abingdon is designated as a firefighting aircraft. The company’s other tandem rotor helicopters are used for logging, construction and defense.
With no fires so far, the crew spends the day cleaning and inspecting the helicopter, and training. Riley said they welcome visitors and enjoy showing families and children the helicopter. He said anyone is welcome to stop at the airport and visit the crew.
Airport Manager Mickey Hines said a Columbia firefighting helicopter has been in Abingdon on one other occasion. A similar military helicopter also occasionally stops for fuel.