Norman Fest 2014: ‘I want to fly one day’

5th annual festival takes off

By Kevin Spradlin

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Previous coverage
* Oct 1: Norman Fest ‘a homecoming for many’
* Aug. 12: Norman Fest itching to grow
* Aug. 23: Runners, cyclists preview GNAT Scat 10K course

NORMAN — Many people, said David Spooner, don’t even know the North Carolina Forest Service has a helicopter for fighting forest fires.

Kevin Spradlin | Juliana Roberts, 5, of Albemarle, seeks a reassuring nod from her grandmother before visiting a larger-than-life Smokey the Bear on Saturday at Norman Fest.

Kevin Spradlin |
Juliana Roberts, 5, of Albemarle, seeks a reassuring nod from her grandmother before visiting a larger-than-life Smokey the Bear on Saturday at Norman Fest.

That tends to change when you park the helicopter in the middle of a festival. That’s exactly what happened as Spooner, chief pilot for the Forest Service’s Piedmont Region, and lead mechanic Kaj Best landed in Norman on Saturday for the 5th annual Norman Fest.

The yellow and green whirly bird attracted a whole lot of attention as Spooner and Best stood in their flight suits close by, answering questions and helping people climb in and have a seat. It certainly got the attention of Alanna McBride, of Derby. Alanna turned 5 on Thursday.

She sat in both the front and back of the bird, taking in the whole of the craft. Her eyes wide, the smile never left her face.

“She’s a dare devil,” said Phillip McBride.  “She’d go (up) in a minute. She gets in a race car and just grins ear to ear.”

Alanna is familiar with the racing circuit. Bert McBride owns and operates Derby Custom Paint and Body Shop. Alanna sees the cars in the shop and rides with him to compete in races at Rockingham Dragway and at venues across the Carolinas.

Luckey Cipriani, 6, and cousin Zane Cipriani, 8, also were high as the sky in the grounded bird.

“I want to fly one day,” Luckey said.

Since the North Carolina Forest Service began keeping records of fire occurrence on private and state-owned lands in 1928, there has been an average of about 4,000 fires burning more than 115,000 acres annually, according to an April 2014 article. North Carolina’s most severe fire season occurs from late winter through late spring (February through May). There is also a shorter fire season that occurs in the fall after leaves have dropped.

Kevin Spradlin | Alanna McBride is all smiles inside the North Carolina Forest Service's helicopter.

Kevin Spradlin |
Alanna McBride is all smiles inside the North Carolina Forest Service’s helicopter.

From the article: “While fire can be a destructive force to life and property, it is also a critical component of most of our natural systems. The majority of North Carolina’s ecosystems, and the plants and animals within them, are adapted to fire or are dependent upon fire. Natural, pre-settlement fire frequency may have been as often as every year in parts of our state. As North Carolina now has a large population with extensive infrastructure, wildfires cannot be allowed to grow naturally and as a result the frequency of fire in most areas has been greatly lengthened. While suppression is necessary, it has led to the exclusion of fire from much of the land and has therefore changed our natural systems.

Because of the exclusion of fire from many areas, there have been efforts to replace natural wildfires with prescribed fires over the last several decades.”

Spooner said the helicopter cost approximately $2 million — expensive, yes, but also the most cost-effective way to fight a wildfire. Its tank holds 143 gallons of fuel, good for up to three hours’ flight time — up to seven hours at 14,000 feet altitude.

Unlike an airplane, a helicopter can be refueled just about anywhere. Plus the 200-gallon dip buckets need only 4 feet of water to be refilled — so pilots of the agency’s five copters can use streams or even swimming pools to refill. At working speed, Spooner and Best could make up to 25 drops an hour.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

It’s also the best way to “ensure guys working on the ground are safe,” Spooner said.

“There’s nothing cheap about any helicopter,” Spooner said, but it’s the “most bang for the buck” in fire fighting equipment.

While the helicopter drew festival-goers to the Forest Service’s section of the festival, it was not the largest piece of the state agency’s display — not by a long shot. While a bulldozer was on static display on a trailer — itself a key piece of forest firefighting equipment — Smokey Bear cast a long shadow over everyone.

Created in 1944 and turning 70 this year, “Smokey’s job was to warn Americans of the danger of forest fires — not those set by Americans — but by the Japanese,” according to an August CBS report. “During World War II, Japan launched fire bombing balloons into the jet stream hoping to destroy American natural resources.”

Ninety-four percent of Americans recognize Smokey Bear. That might be debatable — he does have his own Facebook page — but it sure was difficult to miss his presence in Norman. That’s because the anti-firestarting mascot stood nearly 30 feet tall. And he talked. Through the use of two-way radio, a camera and a microphone, Forest Service staff helped Smokey interact with visitors, waiving and giggling when his larger-than-life feet were tickled. It was a crowd favorite, at least for many. Some young people, who barely stood taller than the top of his toes, were a little more skeptical.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

Juliana Roberts, 5, who lives near Albemarle, was just fine. Her younger sister, on the other hand, was standing a safe 50 feet or so away.

She was scared, her grandmother said.

* * * 

Kenneth Broadway was beaming. At about noon on Saturday, the Norman mayor and a driving force behind Norman Fest years two through five, he’s helped to nurture the festival through a year-round outreach effort of visiting other festivals and luring new vendors and attractions to Richmond County’s northernmost municipality.

“I’m tickled pink,” Broadway said just as magicians Chris and Neal in Rock Star Magic were about to begin a set. “The weather is beautiful.”

Early Friday, Broadway had his fingers crossed, eyes on the sky and was holding his breath. The weather report indicated a large storm cell might come through. Saturday morning, he said one weather report indicated the front would stay north of Interstate 40.

Around 11 a.m., only an hour into the festival, it began to rain — hard enough to force the Salisbury-based Wayward Reason band off the stage. But it was only a temporary setback, as the clouds moved off, the sun and gnats returned and the party continued.

Broadway said he was especially pleased with the large number of classic cars for the cruise-in.

Kevin Spradlin | Lucky Cipriani, 6, of Ellerbe, talks with pilot David Spooner about flight.

Kevin Spradlin |
Lucky Cipriani, 6, of Ellerbe, talks with pilot David Spooner about flight.

“It’s a lot more than we had last year,” Broadway said.

An effort to add another new event in conjunction with Norman Fest didn’t go as planned. The Pee Dee Post sponsored the inaugural GNAT Scat 10K run, walk and bike ride early Saturday morning on a single 6.2-mile loop of the Norman countryside. The event attracted only two pre-registered runners and only one showed. Mark Long, 55, of Hamlet, was the first finisher in a time of 56 minutes and 58 seconds.

Once the festival began, though, activity was centered around live music, barbecue from Millstone BBQ, collard sandwiches, walking tacos and more. Many public safety and civic agencies were on hand, including the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, fire departments from Candor, Mountain Creek, Pekin and East Rockingham, Richmond County Aging Services and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Filed in: Latest Headlines, Outdoors

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