Saturday, November 12, 2016

Air support crews fighting fires from Foothills Regional Airport (with video)

With wildfires burning all across the region, a special team has been called into the area to help fight the blazes.

An air support team with the United States Forest Service is operating out of Foothills Regional Airport in Morganton. The team based in southwest Florida arrived this week and will remain in place for an undetermined period of time.

The team is comprised of six single engine air tankers (SEAT) and pilots, with three planes apiece managed by the U.S. Forest Service’s Bill Sprinkle and Billy Goodwin, along with a ground support team.

James Menuez was part of the ground crew manning support vehicles comprised of two 1,000-gallon water tanks and a 600-gallon fuel tank Friday. The firefighting planes were taking off and landing approximately every five minutes. On Friday, the team’s efforts were going to battle the Party Rock fire at Chimney Rock State Park and the Lake Lure area.

“We’re here with the forestry service,” he said. “We’ve got the aircraft out here fighting wildfires. … (It is) a pretty self-sufficient operation. We can go pretty much anywhere they have water because that’s what they’re dropping on the fires.

“As long as we have a fuel source and a water source, we can go anywhere and support the aircraft. We’ll hopefully get the wildfires put out.”

The airport is providing the operation with the fuel and water supply. Foothills Regional is also providing Internet, restroom facilities and some food and beverages for the team, whose pilots can fly up to eight hours per day.

“The main thing we’re providing (at the aiport) is our fuel and water,” said Foothills Regional Airport Manager Brent Brinkley. “(The airport staff) are here for support. We want to help in any way we can and make sure these guys have what they need.”

Menuez said the team has plenty of experience behind it from fighting fires out west. The members of the team are from several different parts of the country. Menuez said the team can refuel and reload a SEAT plane with water in about three minutes.

“The pilot can’t get out of the aircraft when it’s running,” Menuez said. “It’s up to us on the ground here to make sure he has what he needs. If he needs a drink of water or if his windshield’s a little dirty, we clean it off and make sure he has fuel. We hook up our load hose and it takes about three minutes to load them with water, about 800 gallons. We’re here to make sure the airplane stays in the air and is efficient fighting fires.”

When full of fuel and water, the 7,000-pound Air Tractor AT-802 planes, which are the largest SEATs and are made in Texas, weigh about 16,000 pounds.

“It’s one of the only aircraft that can hold more than it weighs taking off. There are several aircraft here from Arkansas and Louisiana,” he said. “We’re pretty much spread out all over the country. We all work together.”

The Party Rock fire in Lake Lure had grown to an estimated 885 acres as of midday Friday. Steep terrain, gusty winds and extreme drought conditions have made firefighting efforts difficult. The North Carolina Forest Service has assigned more than 100 personnel to the wildfire from all across the state.

The fire is estimated at being 15 percent contained with continued containment efforts ongoing. The residents of 50 homes previously were notified by the Lake Lure Fire Department of a potential need for evacuation in the Quail Ridge and Huntington Road areas of Rumbling Bald Resort. However, only 15 of the 50 homes had to be evacuated. Three homes on Boulder Run Road also were evacuated Thursday.

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