A respected wildlife biologist who died during a controlled fire at Fort Jackson was being remembered Thursday for her work with endangered animals and her strong devotion to her children.
Angela Nicole Chadwick Hawkins, a single mother of three who lived in Columbia, was found dead shortly after noon Wednesday at “a prescribed burn operation in a post training area,” according to a spokesperson for the base and friends. It was not known Thursday what caused her death.
Hawkins, 45, had worked at Fort Jackson since August 2007, said Leslie Ann Sully, a spokesperson for the base. Hawkins previously worked at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Originally from Alabama, she was a specialist in endangered species, known for efforts to save the rare red-cockaded woodpecker.
“The soldiers, civilians and family members at Fort Jackson are a close-knit family and those who worked with Nicole are deeply saddened,” Sully said.
Sully and the DNR’s Johnny Stowe, an expert on controlled fires who worked with Hawkins at his agency, said Hawkins was well known in the Southeast for her conservation work. In 2015, the fort highlighted her efforts to restore the woodpecker population. Fort Jackson protects long-leaf pines, which the birds nest in.
But Stowe said there was more to Hawkins than her work. She had three sons, two of them in elementary school, said Stowe and another friend, Aimee Tomcho. She spent time with them engaging in outdoor activities and attending ballgames, Stowe said. Hawkins also has a grown son who played football at A.C. Flora High School, Stowe and Tomcho said.
“Any conversation I had with Nicole always led back to her children,’’ Stowe said. “She loved taking them hunting and fishing. Nicole adored her children above all else.’’
“She was a fine person, a close friend of mine, as well as a colleague. Nicole was unique. Nobody will ever be able to fill her shoes.’’
Hawkins attended Auburn University and Virginia Tech, Stowe and Tomcho said.
The circumstances around her death remained unclear Thursday. It was not known if the fatality was directly related to the prescribed fire that had been set Wednesday to clear underbrush at Fort Jackson.
Sully said she would not be commenting further since an investigation into the incident is ongoing. Fort Jackson will provide updates when more information is known, she said.
Prescribed burns, or intentionally set fires, are routine practice at the fort, as well as other places with large stands of forests. Fires are intentionally set to clear out brush that builds up on forest floors. Clearing the underbrush reduces the chances of uncontrolled forest fires later. These fires also improve conditions for species like the longleaf pine, which woodpeckers nest in.
Prescribed fires are supposed to be carefully managed, and although there is risk, it is rare for anyone to die in such fires, according to the S.C. Forestry Commission.
The burn being conducted Wednesday at Fort Jackson was on 424 acres, according to the Forestry Commission.
Tomcho, who attended Virginia Tech with Hawkins in the late 1990s, said she doubts her friend’s death resulted from any mistake she made during the controlled burn. Hawkins was a veteran of working with intentionally set fires in wildlife areas, said Tomcho, a biologist with the National Audubon Society in Asheville, N.C.
“She knew what she was doing,’’ Tomcho said. “This is obviously something out of the ordinary that happened. Beyond that, I guess I’m just waiting for the base to release the report.’’
This week’s death is not the first reported on the base in recent years.
In October 2017, two soldiers were killed, and six more were injured during a training exercise when they were hit by a military vehicle, The State reported.
An 18-year-old recruit died after a training march in August 2009, and in July 2016, a sergeant first class died after collapsing at the end of a physical fitness test, according to the newspaper.