The former Hawks Nest State Park Golf Course will soon have some new life breathed into it.

This time, though, the main activity won't involve long drives, birdies or bogies. Instead, later this year, firefighters from throughout Fayette County will be able to train in a brand new facility which will be onsite.

Earlier this year, Brookfield Renewable Energy donated the former 9-hole golf course to the Fayette County Firefighters Association, which plans to construct and house a firefighter training facility where golfers used to gather for a leisurely day on the links. Members of the association county-wide have spent recent weeks working to clear the overgrown course in preparation for a multi-phase construction project.

Brookfield Renewable's manager of stakeholder relations, Brian Noonan, said, "We did indeed donate 156 acres of property which was formerly the Hawks Nest Golf Course to the Fayette County Firefighters Association to assist them in their efforts to provide top-notch training to volunteer firefighters and ultimately keep the public safe."

Noonan said the donation and parcel were structured in such a way to ensure that Brookfield maintains access to the Hawks Nest Tunnel, which is necessary for its renewable power operation.

"We are proud to support the hardworking firefighters in the region that keep us safe each and every day," said Andy Davis Sr., director of strategic relationships for Brookfield Renewable. "This donation will assist them in both their training and recruitment efforts.

"We are looking forward to releasing more details at an event in conjunction with the Fayette County Firefighters Association when they have completed Phase 1 of their work, tentatively scheduled for late October."

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources operated the Hawks Nest Golf Course under the Hawks Nest State Park umbrella for more than a decade up to the course's closure around 2014. The land was privately owned by Brookfield Renewable. The former course is located on U.S. Rte. 60 near Gauley Bridge on the Gauley Mountain.

According to a 2014 article in The Register-Herald, the course, created for Union Carbide employees in the early 1930s, was originally the site of a camp for Depression-era workers who constructed the Hawks Nest Tunnel. In the 1930s, hundreds of workers died from silicosis as a result of poor working conditions while building the tunnel.

Fayette County Fire Coordinator Joe Crist said that, once the state closed the course due to financial concerns, the process of seeking a possible donation of the land began in earnest. The overall search for a location for a facility originally had begun under the leadership of Crist's predecessor, Steve Cruikshank.

"We've been trying for the last 20-some years to find a place to have a training facility," says Crist. "It was a long row to hoe. I honestly wasn't expecting it to happen. The Lord was basically looking out for us. He put us in the right direction with the right people.

"We are graciously, graciously appreciative to Brookfield Renewable for helping us out with this project. If it hadn't been for them, we'd still be looking for property."

A clause exists in the deed transfer that if it ceases to be a training center, the property reverts back to Brookfield after a specified time period, Crist noted. "But we're not going to let that happen."

"What we want is a place of our own," he continued. "Right now, the State of West Virginia requires 120 hours of basic firefighter training for a new recruit to actually be able to get on a fire truck," said Crist. That "takes quite a while to accomplish, and then there's another 48 hours in what's called Firefighter 2, which is a little bit more enhanced class than (firefighter 1) is."

Firefighter 1 training requires a "lot of hands-on stuff," including vehicle fires and live fire training. To achieve that type of training in the past, Crist said, "We have to load the students up and either take them to Princeton, Lewisburg or Institute." In doing so, a certain amount must be paid for each individual, in addition to cost of travel. "If we have our own training facility, then we don't have to do all that traveling, and everything's right there on sight."

The Fayette County Firefighters Association includes 16 departments with a combined membership near 400. The new center will make it much easier and cheaper for firefighter recruits and veteran firefighters alike, Crist said. "It's not just recruits; we've got guys that have been around 30 or 40 years and are still training."

Most departments do some in-house training, and "we try to do a couple weekend classes for the whole county, at least two or three a year," he said. "Until Covid, departments would send (individuals seeking training) out to regional fire schools" in locations such as Putnam County and Sissonville.

The county itself has its own instructors who lead rescue core classes, which was a requirement until the most recent legislative session, according to Crist. Those include disciplines such as trench rescue, auto extrication, rope rescue and swiftwater rescue. The county's swiftwater team and rope rescue squad "both work in conjunction with one another. Those guys are constantly out on the weekends doing stuff in the gorge or on New River." They attempt to run some of those classes annually to sharpen their skills and attract new recruits.

In addition, several out-of-state instructors travel to the area and lead various rescue classes throughout the year.

During Cruikshank's tenure, an account targeted toward a possible training center was established, Crist said. "Each year that we had money left over, we put a little bit in it at a time. Over the past 20 to 25 years, we had a nice little substantial amount put into it."

"But, a lot of the stuff we are getting is being donated," he added, such as tank cars and other props from CSX.

"We want this property down there to be a state-of-the-art training facility," Crist explained. "We don't want to just throw a bunch of Conex boxes and then throw a bunch of pallets in there and set them on fire. We want the firefighters and the trainees and all to get the experience of a what a flashover is, what a backdraft is, what a Class A fire is, what a Class B fire is.

"On the property down there, we're going to put a whole bunch of different type props."

Fayette County Fire Service is currently advertising for bids for a three-story Class A burn building, as well as a Class A flashover trainer, a Class A backdraft trainer and a Class B trainer.

"This burn building we've put into bid is going to have all that stuff," Crist said. "You can make it (build your own), but it's not the real thing."

Among the other items onsite will be an automobile fire prop. After the equipment is shipped and installed, the members of the association will perform much of the interior work, work on the doors and other areas.

Bids are slated to be opened at 4 p.m. on Friday, July 31. If all goes according to schedule, Crist said Phase 1 should be ready to be utilized by November 2020. That will be in the area of the lower parking lot and the old clubhouse area. The burn building is expected to be placed in the vicinity of the former No. 1 tee.

"We're trying to stay as far away from the Persimmon Road area as we can, try to be good neighbors with the neighbors up there," Crist said.

The training facility will be a welcome addition for the firefighters, said Mike Gray, chief of the Ansted Fire Department.

"We've needed training that we don't have to go outside the county," said Gray. "We can't burn down old houses like we used to (because of increased regulations). So now we have to do it in a simulator."

On Monday of this week, a group of firefighters from the Ansted and Nuttall departments converged at Hawks Nest to spend their training night sawing trees and clearing and moving limbs and brush. Firefighters — and some volunteers who aren't firemen — have supplied their own equipment and given their own time to begin the process of getting the old course back to par.

"They've all chipped in," said Gray. "They've mowed for hours, brought their own lawnmowers and weed eaters down here. It's a combined effort." The cleanup effort has featured "several hours of all departments sending people to do work up here in Fayette County. They're all excited."

And it hasn't been an easy task.

"Brush had overtaken it, and trees were dying," Gray said. "It was really in need of something, and we were in need of something. We're getting it slowly but surely."

Besides supplying closer-to-home training opportunities for new and veteran local firemen, the new facility will "help with everybody's ISO rating, which affects your insurance premiums," Gray said. "A training center right here in the middle of the county, that's going to help that ISO rating."

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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