Pictured: Keith Bartlett, from Dallas, assists the crew members with the end of the day tie-down of two Blackhawk helicopters Monday evening. The nine-man crew is on standby as the state is in high alert for fires. Photo by OFELIA GARCIA HUNTER
Ofelia Garcia Hunter, Alice Echo-News Journal
Two Blackhawk helicopters crewed by nine men arrived at the Alice Airport Monday, and remain on standby per the governor's orders as preparation for possible fires in the area.
"The state is in a red flag warning and the governor put Texas Army on notice to try to move us closer to the scenes," Chief Warrant David B. Willrich said. "We are on standby to put out any fires."
Willrich and eight others from different aviation units throughout Texas and the Texas Forestry Service arrived at the airport about 1 p.m.
Two UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters decked out with emergency equipment, tools and water buckets await the call.
"Each crew has four men on board with two pilots, a crew chief and a safety observer," Willrich said. "We can be ready to go in about 15 minutes."
The crew is expected to remain in Alice for about a week. Besides the Alice team, aviation units are on standby in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Each helicopter has the capacity for 11 combat troops.
Fires in the area recently left more than 12,000 acres up in smoke in Duval and Brooks counties. And last week, Ben Bolt residents and the middle school were evacuated because of raging fires. In both cases, no injures were reported and only one non-residential structure was destroyed in the Ben Bolt fire, officials said.
The National Weather Service has issued a Fire Weather Watch for today for 15 counties, including Jim Wells, Duval and Kleberg. The watch is in effect from this afternoon until the evening hours because of an upper level disturbance that is moving across the region today. The conditions are drier air and increasing west winds with relative humidities dropping 20 to 25 percent over the Coastal Bend.
"The combination of strong wind and the very low relative humidities will result in a high risk of dangerous fire behavior," the NWS warns.
About 5:30 p.m. Monday, the crew members tied down the Blackhawk helicopter's propellers as the day came to an end.
With red flag warnings in effect today, the crew is ready if needed.
"Things are supposed to get more dangerous (Tuesday)," Willrich said. "We will be here as long as necessary…we will do whatever they ask and stay with them until we are released."