2 Killed When Air Tanker Fighting
Big Elk Fire Crashes
Air Tankers Across The West Grounded
6:53 a.m. MDT July 18, 2002
Updated: 12:00 a.m. MDT July 19, 2002
PINEWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. -- One of the three air
tankers battling the Big Elk Fire crashed Thursday night,
killing two crew members.
Their identities have not been released but colleagues
say both have families.
The four-engine plane (pictured, left) went down about
6:45 p.m. near the Lyons Park Gulch trailhead, within
200 yards of Highway 36, 2 miles north of Pinewood Springs,
and 1 mile north of the fire, 7NEWS reported.
It had been circling over the eastern flank of the Big
Elk Fire, and made a couple of practice runs when it appeared
to blow up in midair.
"When it came out, it is was really low and was
I was like, 'Here he comes, he's gonna come in.' And at
about that time, the wings folded off of it, the fuselage
busted in half, and exploded in midair," Scott Fisher
said. "And there's a guy standing right next to me
and we were both watching and just ... 'Oh my god.'"
Many of the people who witnessed the tragedy had been
by the road all day, watching the tankers make its drops.
Some eyewitnesses reported that the plane appeared to
have been on fire before it went down.
"There was an explosion, a fire right by the left
wing where it joins the fuselage. The wing came off and
then he rolled and crashed. It was very quick," eyewitness
Roy Safstrom told 7NEWS.
The crash created a plume of smoke that could be seen
over the ridge line and started several spot fires. Two
choppers dropped water on the spot fires, and were able
to put those fires out before night fell.
The impact created a large debris field, AirTracker 7
Pilot Rich Westra said.
Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park will be closed
for 36 hours as a result of the crash. Highway 7 is being
used as an alternate route.
According to a Forest Service spokesman, the heavy air
tanker was coming from Jefferson County Airport, on the
way to the fire, with a full load, or 2,000 gallons, of
slurry on board.
The air tanker was identified as #123 (pictured, above),
a four-engine PB4Y that was built in 1945, according to
registration records. That type of plane was retired in
the 1960s and now only a small number are used to fight
"We watched it take off on that last flight about
6:15 (p.m.)," said Julie Hayden, the 7NEWS reporter
assigned to cover the airtankers at Jeffco airport Thursday.
She said there was no indication of trouble with the plane
during the many times she saw it take off and land earlier
in the day.
Last month, a C-130A air tanker battling a fire in Walker,
Calif., 80 miles south of Reno, Nev., crashed after its
wings snapped off in the air, sending the fuselage to
the ground in a fireball. Three men were killed.
Both planes are owned by the same company, Hawkins &
Powers Aviation of Greybull, Wyo. The company has specialized
in firefighting aircraft for 45 years, 7NEWS reported.
It has 28 aircraft that are contracted to the government
A total of 25 people have died in 14 firefighting air
crashes since 1960 in the United States, 7NEWS reported.
Air Tankers Across The West Grounded
The Rocky Mountain Coordination Center immediately grounded
all air tankers in Colorado after Thursday's accident.
Officials with the Boise Interagency Logistics Center
said air tankers across the Western part of the United
States have also been grounded. Randy Eardley of the Boise
Interagency Center said this is a typical move after an
accident. He said a critical management team will come
to Jefferson County Airport, and other air bases will
be offered a team to counsel pilots.
This move did not affect many flights Thursday night
because the planes stop flying at night fall, Eardley
Air Crews Work Hard, Fast
News of the pilots' death devastated the tight-knit community.
According to several aviation experts, the number of
captains in the country who fly firefighting air tankers
number fewer than the members of the Denver Broncos football
team, 7NEWS reported.
The crews work hard and fast to make it all work like
clockwork. Tankers would land, get filled with retardant,
and then be back in the sky again -- all within 15 minutes,
The tight schedule gives pilots little room for error
and just enough time to stretch their legs between runs.
The round trip to the Big Elk fire and back to the Jeffco
airport was about 25 minutes.
It can make for an exhausting day.
"This is a very tasking job. They're up at 9 a.m.
and don't stop until a half-hour after sunset. With the
high altitude, high temperatures, and heavy load, it's
like driving your automobile on a sheet of ice all day
long ... and you can just get worn at the end of the day,"
Owens Statement On Crash
Gov. Bill Owens issued a statement expressing sorrow
over the crash Thursday night.
"This tragedy shows just how dangerous it is to
battle these fires. Firefighters in the air and on the
ground are in constant peril. My prayers and the prayers
of Coloradans everywhere go out to the families and friends
of the victims and to all the firefighters," the
Governor said in his statement.
"If it is indeed proven that this fire was human-caused,
then it makes the tragedy even more distressing, with
a needless loss of life," the statement concluded.
It was the third fatal accident involving firefighters
involved in battling Colorado forest fires this season.
A rollover accident on June 21 along Interstate 70 killed
five members of a firefighting team from Oregon as they
were heading to the Hayman Fire. A single firefighter
died July 2 when he was crushed by a falling tree in the
Missionary Ridge Fire near Durango, Colo.
Blaze Grows To 1,200 Acres
Residents who were forced out of their homes on Wednesday
were once again urged to evacuate as an out-of-control
blaze in Larimer County more than doubled in size Thursday,
The latest voluntary evacuation order affected the 124
homes in the Big Elk Meadows subdivision near Pinewood
The Forest Service asked homeowners who were leaving
to put a towel on their front doorknob so that firefighters
walking through the neighborhood would know that no one
Residents were asked to gather at Estes Park High School,
where a Red Cross Shelter has been set up. They were encouraged
to take their pets to the shelter as well since a representative
from the Longmont Humane Society would be there to provide
temporary homes for any evacuated animals.
As of Thursday afternoon about 50 people had registered
at the shelter, but not all of those will be staying overnight.
Evacuees are urged to register so that family and friends
have a way to contact them away from home.
A community meeting on the fire was held at the high
school Thursday evening.
As the temperature heated up Thursday, so did the fire
activity. The Big Elk Fire was so active that one smoke
plume was as high as 22,000 feet and can be seen in Boulder
and parts of the Front Range.
Officials last estimated that the Big Elk Fire was 1,200
acres, and still growing, according to Rick Dustin of
the U.S. Forest Service. Winds were out of the east at
5 to 10 mph, but there were 20 mph hour wind gusts Thursday
afternoon, Dustin said.
The fire was moving away from homes, staying on national
forest land, according to Dustin. The blaze was slowly
growing to the south and to the north, he said.
The good news is that the fire is currently moving toward
the west, into a heavily forested but less populated area.
However, because fire behavior is tricky and its direction
can shift at any time, residents were re-evacuated as
a precaution, Forest Service spokeswoman Martha Moran
These same families were evacuated Wednesday afternoon
and then allowed to return to their homes shortly before
10 p.m. Wednesday night when the fire appeared to have
The 120 firefighters currently battling the blaze are
facing tough weather conditions.
Temperatures on Thursday were in the high 90s and low
100s and humidity was low. Winds were relatively calm
and variable, but in cases when a fire is so large and
unpredictable, it can create its own wind and weather,
making for volatile firefighting conditions, 7NEWS reported.
Fire officials say that the Big Elk Fire is definitely
human-caused, but did not disclose any more details. Investigators
are combing through the area where the fire started along
County Road 47.
The blaze was first reported just after 3 p.m. in the
area of Big Elk Meadows, about 1 mile west of Pinewood
Springs, 8 miles southeast of Estes Park, and about one-half
mile from Highway 36 near county Road 47.
Fire commanders said that the crew has focused on building
containment lines and making sure that the fire does not
jump Highway 36.
Aggressively Attacking Fire From Air
Officials from the Forest Service and the Larimer County
Sheriff's Office said that they are throwing all of their
resources at the fire and hitting it hard, but the hot,
dry conditions and rugged terrain will make it tough to
The fire is burning up steep, heavily forested slopes
of the Roosevelt National Forest, and is only accessible
by air or after an ardous hike.
Four engines, 120 firefighters, three air tankers and
three helicopters are at the scene, and more are expected,
said a spokesman for the National Forest Service.
Two air tankers, two 20-person handcrews, and a Type
II firefighting team have been called in to help tackle
the blaze, which is at zero-percent containment.
Because of the favorable wind conditions, tankers have
been able to make continuous slurry drops.
Neighbors in the area are upset, knowing that this fire
was started by a person, and could have been prevented.
"I keep wondering why it is that we can't close
off more of the backcountry roads and the places where
people are coming in and being careless with fires,"
evacuee Paul McDaniel said. "I did have a chance
to speak with the Forest Service investigators, and they
found where the fire started. They didn't know exactly
what the situation was, but were of the opinion that it
was started by humans ... This was strictly opinion, but
it was right by the side of the road, so a cigarette butt
or something tossed from the car, is what it would appear
to be, but that's certainly not official."
The homes that are being evacuated are within a 1-mile
radius from the center of the Big Elk Meadows subdivision.
The Sheriff's Department once again activated the emergency
phone system, or reverse 911, to notify affected residents.
Residents said that they're better prepared to evacuate
today, and many had already packed their bags and other
Many of them were still at work or away when Wednesday's
evacuation orders came down, 7NEWS reported. So when they
tried to go home yesteday, they weren't allowed through
the roadblocks and couldn't retrieve anything from their
property -- not even their pets.
Fortunately, many of them had made contingency plans
for such a situation, 7NEWS reported.
"We have an agreement -- they get my dogs, I get
their dogs. As I was on my way out, I helped another neighbor
with her dog, then another neighbor needed help with another
dog," said evacuee Vicki Carr.
this link and
Throwaway Planes and Throwaway Pilots