FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — Crews from the West Virginia National Guard are aiding the West Virginia Division of Forestry and the National Park Service in Fayette County on a fire fighting mission. A Blackhawk helicopter from the Guard’s 150th Aviation Regiment in Wheeling is spending the day dropping water onto the leading edge of a fire in the steep terrain of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
“They’ve actually been training for this mission for some time and it’s the first of its kind for the West Virginia National Guard. We’ve never been called to this mission before in our history,” said Major Holli Nelson with the National Guard.
The five person aviation crew on board will communicate with the ground to lift water from a lake or pond close to the area of operations then drop water on the fire where directed from below. The work is critical, particularly in the rugged and steep slopes on the walls of the New River Gorge where the work for ground personnel is dangerous and slow.
“It has this large basket underneath which can hold up to 4,400 pounds of water and it can make a precision pass and drop the water on the leading edge of the fire,” she said.
Nelson added the mission requires precise timing and coordination between personnel on the aircraft as well as those with whom they are coordinating on the ground. The guard has been training for just such a mission since 2019, but has never had the opportunity to put the plan into action until now.
During the past several days low humidity, steady winds, and higher than normal temperatures have dried out the West Virginia forests and left them ripe for fire. Several are now burning across southern West Virginia, including the 50 acre blaze in the Wild Rock area of the New River Gorge which is visible from the New River Gorge Bridge on U.S. Route 19.
Officials hoped the Guard would be able to stem the spread of the fire with aerial attacks today and slow it down until the remnants of Hurricane Nicole reach West Virginia later on tonight and into Friday.