South Dakotans help search for shuttle debris

South Dakotans help search for shuttle debris As of March 5, 286 residents from South Dakota have joined the interagency task force searching for Columbia shuttle material in Texas, according to recovery officials.

"We are grateful for the participation of the South Dakota contingent in the search," said Federal Coordinating Officer Scott Wells for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "They have had to endure some adverse weather conditions and search through dense vegetation to accomplish their daily missions, and they have met every challenge with resolve and grace."

At the request of the Texas Forest Service, four base camps were established to house interagency wildland firefighting crews who were called to relieve local volunteers and law enforcement agencies who had performed admirably during the initial search operation.

"It was a natural fit," said Texas Forest Service spokesperson Mark Stanford. "These firefighters are trained to work in a variety of difficult situations and can organize and come in at a moment's notice."

To date, the interagency task force created to direct the effort has brought in 155 crews of 20 person each from 39 states. All total, about 4,000 interagency personnel have joined the ground search effort. The 155 crews represent 3,100 people walking the search areas daily. The others are support personnel who manage base camp operations.

Four base camps, located in Nacogdoches, Hemphill, Palestine and Corsicana, TX, were established to house, feed and provide shelter, showers and other necessities to the hardworking crews. The crews work in NASA-selected search areas along a 240-by-10-mile-wide corridor that stretches from Ellis County to Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border.

Barring lightning or other life-threatening weather conditions, crews walk shoulder-to-shoulder through fields, pastures and some of the most heavily wooded land in East Texas, rain or shine. The eastern part of the search area is known as the Pineywoods of East Texas, and part of it is forested with an understory made up of dense, briar-rich vegetation. In some areas, the vegetation is as high as or taller than the searchers. "It is difficult and tasking work," said Wells.

The interagency task force established a mobilization and staging unit in Longview, TX. Crew members fly into East Texas Regional Airport near Longview or arrive by ground transportation before they are transported to one of the four camps. Crews who arrive late in the day are temporarily housed at the staging area. This unit processed more than 2,640 members through the airport in about a week. With this effort, this has become on of the largest interagency mobilization efforts in one place, in one week, in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, recovery officials said.

"It is an amazing accomplishment," Wells said, "and it is exemplary of this state's and the nation's contributions to assist NASA in determining the cause of the loss of Columbia and her crew. It's just an outstanding effort by all."

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