Utilizing Watershed Dam Reservoirs: A Strategic Tool in Battling West Virginia Wildfires


(Cover photo by Edwin Wriston | U.S. National Guard)


(Note: The West Virginia Conservation Agency and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service partnered to provide this report.)

As the threat of wildfires looms ever larger due to climate change and environmental factors, communities are continually seeking innovative solutions to combat these destructive blazes. One such solution lies in utilizing the state’s watershed dam reservoirs as a strategic resource for firefighting efforts. 

Watershed dam reservoirs are engineered structures designed to store water for various purposes, including flood control, municipal water supply, irrigation, hydroelectric power, recreation and navigation. These reservoirs can hold vast quantities of water, often spanning large areas and containing millions of gallons. Leveraging these reservoirs for firefighting purposes makes them a critical asset in emergency situations, as was the case recently in West Virginia’s Potomac Valley region. 

The West Virgnia National Guard utilized local water sources from Lost River No. 27 Watershed Dam to help combat extensive forest fires in Hardy County that have consumed more than 6,000 acres of woodlands and threatened communities and residences. The deployment was in response to the State of Emergency declaration by Governor Jim Justice made on March 21 for Grant, Hardy, Hampshire and Pendleton counties.

The helicopter crews collect a payload, and ground crews direct where to dump the water. The National Guard said this delivery method helps when dealing in rough or dangerous terrain that’s not easily accessible for ground crews.

Ron Miller, a conservation district supervisor with the Potomac Valley Conservation District from Hardy County, received a call from the state Division of Forestry asking about accessing water from the local small watershed dam. The available water was very beneficial to helping fight the fires, he said. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this in Hardy County before,” he said. “Any time they need to have water [to fight fires], we need to let ’em.” Some of the water collected by helicopter also helped protect homes in an area near Lost River No. 4 dam," Miller said.    

Edwin “Bo” Wriston, a public affairs specialist with the West Virginia National Guard, said two Blackhawk helicopters flew 143 total sorties using “Bambi Buckets” to drop 95,000 gallons of water to fight the fires. In a news release, Wriston described the “lightweight, flexible buckets,” which are slung under the helicopter fuselage, as being capable of holding 630 gallons, or roughly 4,500 pounds of water. 

“Having that kind of water resource available was helping the crews on the ground get the upper hand on the fires,” said Hardy County Commission President David Workman. “We depend on [the dams] for flood control, and this time they came in handy as a source of water to fight the fire.” Wriston said several water sources were accessed to help fight the wildfires. 

Since the 1940s, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) assisted local communities by planning, designing, and constructing nearly 12,000 dams across the United States. In West Virginia, NRCS has assisted with the development of 170 watershed dams. Across the state, these watershed projects provide an estimated annual benefit of approximately $70 million in reduced flooding and erosion damages, improved wildlife habitat, recreation, and water supply for an estimated 1.1 million people.

The local conservation districts with the West Viriginia Conservation Agency and other local sponsors combine to own, operate, maintain, and repair the majority of the NRCS-assisted dams across West Virginia.  The WVCA and the conservation districts take care of regular maintenance like mowing, checking risers and clearing brush. The WVCA also conducts monthly inspections, while NRCS participates in annual dam inspections and certifications.


(The Shenandoah National Park closed Skyline Drive from Thornton Gap to Mathews Arm trails because of the Rocky Branch wildfire. The fire started Wednesday, March 20. The cause of the fire is unknown. Photo Credit: National Park Service.)


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