Smoke from wildfires grounds emergency helicopters

Nov. 15, 2016: First responder helicopters are scrubbing flights because they can't see through the smoke billowing in from wildfires across East Tennessee.

As wildfires continue to burn across East Tennessee, the smoke and haze in the air is causing problems for first responder helicopters. 

Phyllis Walker, the director of UT Lifestar, said the service has had to pass on 26 flights in two days because the visibility and smoke are issues for pilots and patients. 

"The smoke, really since Friday, has been really hampering our ability to accomplish our flights," Walker said. 

Pilots are looking at each flight on a case-by-case basis, Walker said, and determining if it will be safe to fly to the pick up location and back to UT Medical Center, where most of the flights end up. 

"All the pilots, they're staying very diligent and looking at the situation as it comes up, and if there's a chance that they can help, they definitely will," she said.

In addition to the visibility issues, Walker said the pilots also have to watch out for other aircraft that are working to fight the wildfires in places like Cocke County. 

"We have to fly around those areas like Cocke County and Morgan County and some to our south as well," she said. "So that adds to the variability of the issue." 

UT Lifestar was able to make two flights on Monday, but other providers from areas like Chattanooga and Johnson City are having issues as well with making flights to UTMC. 

"Nobody is green light to go right now, that's for sure," Walker said. "Everybody is looking at each request as it comes in." 

The Knox County Sheriff's Office aviation unit is also facing a similar issue. Richard Trott, a captain in the unit, said pilots check with McGhee Tyson Airport on the weather conditions to determine whether it is safe to fly. 

"We're going to manage risk in association with weather every time," Trott said. 

The smoke is a concern for the aviation unit, he said, because it makes it difficult for pilots to see far ahead. 

"For instance, if we were to fly into smoke and we couldn't see and there was a tower there," Trott said, "if we're lower than the tower's top, there's a chance we could strike it." 

Walker said she hopes the smoke clears out soon so UT Lifestar can get back to saving lives and saving time. 

"We don't even need rain," she said. "We just need a little bit of the smoke, doesn't even have to be all of it, but a little bit of the smoke to clear, and we'll be back in business without so many restrictions." 

(© 2016 WBIR)


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