Female helicopter pilot fights forest fire on Holston Mountain

By Bob Robinson
Star STAFF

   It is a long way from Devon, England to Stoney Creek, outside Elizabethton, but Bonnie Wilkens made it in record time.
   She is a pilot for Agrotors Helicopters of Gettysburg, Penn., which has a contract with the U.S. Forest Service to fight forest fires.
   Bonnie has been in Carter County since Monday when she landed her Bell 212 Helicopter, which seats nine, equipped with a 324 gallon water bucket.
   She's been flying helicopters since 1983 and fighting forest fires since 1985. "I enjoy it. My husband is a pilot, too. Together, we both fly about 530 days a year. We don't get to see each other very often," she said.
   How long does it take a helicopter to extinguish a forest fire on the average?
   "It may take one day or 10 weeks. It depends on the size of the forest fire and the complexity of the fire," according to Bonnie.
   Bonnie joined 50 others battling a stubborn forest fire in rugged terrain on the eastern slope of Holston Mountain near Elizabethton.
   The fire, which has already burned 220 acres, was 75 percent contained last night, according to Roby Phillippi of the Elizabethton District Fire Management Office.
   No houses have been threatened, thus far. The cause of the fire, which began Sunday, is still under investigation by the Forest Service.
   Since Monday, when Bonnie and the helicopter arrived at Elizabethton Municipal Airport, the staging area for the Forest Service, more than 34,500 gallons of water have been dumped on the fire.
   Charles "Dude" LaPorte is allowing the forest service to use water from a pond on his property to fight the fire.
   "Dude is making a big contribution to this community by allowing water from his property to be used on the fire. As a result, the helicopter stayed out of the flight path of airplanes leaving and arriving at Elizabethton Municipal Airport," according to Randy Musick, airport manager.
   Forestry officials said it will take two or three days to mop up the fire after it is extinguished.
   On the fire line last night were representatives of the Forest Service, TVA, U.S. Park Service, Jacobs Creek Job Corps, native Americans from Oklahoma and Stoney Creek Fire Department.
   When Bonnie is not fighting forest fires, she is busy spraying crops. Her last assignment in the area was in Abingdon, Va.
   "This area is so pretty," she said, adding, "yes, I also know about Ridgewood Barbecue," a favorite eating place of residents and visitors to the area.
   At sunrise tomorrow, Bonnie, from the air, and those on the ground, continue their forest fire attack on Holston Mountain.