Industrial arts

Eva Murray: Black Hawks over Criehaven

Posted:  Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - 2:15pm

On Tuesday, July 8, the residents of Criehaven gathered near their tiny grass airstrip as two Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters approached by way of the southern tip of Matinicus and landed noisily but gently on the island.

The National Guard, along with the Maine Forest Service, the Knox, Waldo and Hancock County Emergency Management agencies and the Knox County Regional Airport were conducting a Wildland Fire Suppression Functional Exercise. Emerging from the first helicopter were two Forest Service firefighters in traditional yellow shirts and hardhats, there to look around the island, meet some of the people and understand the logistics involved should they ever been called upon to come help with a major fire in such an isolated place.

Criehaven, also known as Ragged Island on some maps, is the island farthest from shore with a regular population. Although nobody's full-time or only home, approximately 10 lobster fishermen and a small group of homeowners who come for the summer or rent to visitors occupy the island. Much of the property is owned by one family, and aside from the few fishermen, many of the islanders are retired. Once a year-round community with a school and a post office, Criehaven is now an unorganized territory with no such services, no distributed electricity or telephone (although some homes have Internet and VOIP telephone), no municipal government and — because the population is so tiny — no fire department.

This most distant of inhabited islands seems a logical place for agencies involved with disasters, such as forest fires, to practice working together. This exercise had to do with logistics, with inter-agency cooperation and with communications. As the emergency management director for Matinicus Island (a big title for a tiny job,) I was privileged to go along. My job would basically be to climb up on various objects with a hand-held 2-meter ham radio, since I am licensed to do so, and to communicate with the mainland. Allow me to report that amateur radio worked better than other radio bands, including those normally used by public safety agencies. Given the remoteness of the island, this was not surprising.

Earlier that morning, staff from the three county EMA offices set up a communications station at the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head. A large water tank on wheels, called a water buffalo, was staged not far from where the helicopters would land when they arrived from Bangor. This tank would be delivered to Criehaven for the use of the community in the event of a fire. Small tools such as shovels and Pulaski fire axes were also headed for the island. Criehaven lobsterman Jeff Jones had requested the equipment, observing that a couple of recent fires on Criehaven were put out by bucket brigade.

The Maine Army National Guard 126th Aviation Medevac unit, led by Major Nathan Arnold, landed at KCR airport at about 10:30 a.m., from where the pair of helicopters made four round-trips to and from Criehaven. Each Black Hawk carries a crew of four, including two pilots. For this exercise, the Guard had the opportunity to work on over-water operations and moving heavy freight with the aircraft. The 126th has been called upon to perform several rescues of injured hikers this season, responding to remote locations such as Mount Katahdin.

What's it like to ride in a Black Hawk helicopter? Pretty exciting and very loud! I love my job.

Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus.

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