Environment

‘Big mystery.’ Unusual Fort Jackson fire death has biologist’s family asking ‘Why?’

Nicole Chadwick Hawkins, a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson, was an expert on endangered red cockaded woodpeckers and prescribed fire. She died during a prescribed fire in May 2019.
Nicole Chadwick Hawkins, a wildlife biologist at Fort Jackson, was an expert on endangered red cockaded woodpeckers and prescribed fire. She died during a prescribed fire in May 2019.

As the forest burned and smoke filled the trees, Nicole Chadwick-Hawkins ran into a situation that eventually took her life.

Chadwick-Hawkins, a widely regarded wildlife biologist and civilian employee at Fort Jackson, had participated many times in controlled burns like the one she was working May 22 at the military training base.

But on that day, something went wrong. Well after Fort Jackson had ignited the fire to clear underbrush, co-workers found her body in the pines, burned beyond recognition, family members said.

Twenty firefighters spent Wednesday morning setting fires and containing them, part of the largest live-training exercise ever held on the American River Parkway. Video by Hector Amezcua of The Sacramento Bee.

Three federal agencies investigating her death aren’t saying much about the cause, but information her family has received from the Army and others knowledgeable about the death suggests some kind of equipment malfunction led to the fatality that stunned friends from Alabama to Virginia, family members say.

Chadwick-Hawkins’ son, Dakota Bryant of Myrtle Beach, said fuel was found on her upper body and on equipment she was using that day. A charred all-terrain vehicle sat near her body and a gas cap was missing from a fuel tank, family members said. The Alabama native had been in contact with base officials by radio, just before she died, they said.

“I don’t know definitely that it was an equipment malfunction, but it is likely based on the fact that there was fuel found on her gear,’’ the 24-year-old Bryant said, noting that fuel on her gear “was not normal.’’

“My mom was the most experienced ATV rider out there. It’s extremely unlikely she would have gotten herself into a position where she was trapped’’ by fire.

All terrain vehicles used in prescribed fires sometimes are mounted with tanks and wands that shoot bursts of flames. If fuel somehow leaked from a tank while flames were shooting out, an explosion could have resulted, fire experts and family members said.

Bryant and Kristie Chadwick, Nicole’s older sister, said the Columbia biologist had questioned the condition of equipment on the all terrain vehicle, raising concerns about whether a fuel tank exploded. A person familiar with the accident told Chadwick-Hawkins’ mother, Elizabeth Bridgeman, about an explosion, Bridgeman said.

“It wasn’t working properly,’’ Kristie Chadwick said of the tank. “She’s been complaining to them, telling them about that.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this.’’

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said he was not asked by a federal agency to help with the death investigation, but generally, it would be unusual for a person to be burned to death by a prescribed fire, unless some flammable material intensified the flames.

Controlled burns are fires used to clear brush and improve habitat for wildlife. Often they are low-intensity fires and are managed by a crew of people.

Conservationists discuss the ecological benefits of prescribed fire. Also known as controlled burns, the blazes can reduce damage from wildfires and preserve the environment.

It’s possible some other factor led to Chadwick-Hawkins’ death, instead of equipment failure. Sometimes, a simple vehicle accident has resulted in deaths during wild-land fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which keeps statistics on forest fire related deaths. Other times, people have gotten sick and collapsed, experts say.

A mother of three, including two sons under the age of 10, Chadwick-Hawkins grew up in Alabama, graduated from Auburn University and received a graduate school degree at Virginia Tech before moving to South Carolina, where she worked at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and most recently Fort Jackson as a civilian employee.

Her death left many biologists and prescribed fire managers wondering how it occurred because the 45-year-old was so experienced. Chadwick-Hawkins’ Facebook page is filled with pictures of her working through the years on prescribed fires.

Chadwick-Hawkins worked on controlled burning operations as an expert on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a rare bird that has dwindled in numbers as its habitat has been depleted. That habitat, long-leaf pine forests, exists on Fort Jackson and is sometimes ignited intentionally to help the bird.

Because Chadwick-Hawkins’ body was burned so badly in the Fort Jackson woods fire, she was cremated, her sister and father said. A funeral held June 1 in her hometown of Guntersville, Ala., drew a standing-room-only crowd at a local funeral home, her father, Larry Chadwick, said.

“There wasn’t enough chairs,’’ her father said. “She knew a lot of folks.’’

After the funeral, ashes were scattered in a river that runs through an Alabama state park her family visited through the years, Chadwick-Hawkins’ sister said. Chadwick-Hawkins’ life will be remembered during a memorial service at Fort Jackson in late June, her mother and sister said.

“She was very outgoing, very sweet, a go-getter,’’ Chadwick-Hawkins’ mother said. ”She was everything to me.’’

Fort Jackson officials declined comment this week when contacted by The State about the Army’s investigation into her death, but the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms confirmed they are investigating.

OSHA, which investigates deaths that occur on the job, began looking into the matter May 23, a spokesman said.

“OSHA is investigating this occupational fatality and will seek to determine the cause of the incident and whether there were violations’’ of federal law, spokesman Eric Lucero said in an email Tuesday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited 31,643 workplace violations nationwide between September 2017 and October 2018. Here are the top 5 standards that were violated and the parts of those standards that were cited the most.

An ATF spokesman in Charlotte offered no details of the nature of his agency’s investigation. The ATF is a law enforcement agency that, among other things, investigates fires for signs of criminal wrongdoing, such as arson.

Dying in a prescribed fire is uncommon nationally, and almost unheard of in South Carolina, federal and state agencies say.

South Carolina has nearly 20,000 prescribed fires each year, but officials at the state Forestry Commission say they don’t remember a case in which someone was killed.

Nationally, only 10 of 297 reported wildland fire deaths from 2002-2018 involved prescribed burns, and half of those were helicopter accidents, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. OSHA officials said they also haven’t dealt with a prescribed fire death in the Southeast in at least five years.

Larry Chadwick said his biggest question now is why his daughter died. But he said officials at Fort Jackson have not told the family enough about the circumstances of her death.

“They won’t tell us nothing,’’ he said. “They said as long as it’s under investigation, they can’t give out no kind of information. That’s Uncle Sam for you, I guess. (It) is a big mystery.’’

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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