2 Killed When Air Tanker Fighting Big Elk Fire Crashes
Air Tankers Across The West Grounded
Wayne Harrison and Kim Ngan Nguyen, Staff Writers
 

PINEWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. -- One of the three air tankers battling the Big Elk Fire crashed Thursday night, killing two crew members.

Crashed PBY on previous mission

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 fires.

"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 for firefighting.

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 said.

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, 7NEWS reported.

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," Westra said.

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, 7NEWS reported.

The latest voluntary evacuation order affected the 124 homes in the Big Elk Meadows subdivision near Pinewood Springs.

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 is home.

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 said.

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 laid down.

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 fight.

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."

Homeowners Re-Evacuated

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 belongings yesterday.

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.

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Throwaway Planes and Throwaway Pilots

       PINEWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. -- An investigation will begin today into the crash of an air tanker battling the Big Elk Fire Thursday night.


Two crew members on board the four-engine plane were killed on impact. 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 Lions Park Gulch trailhead, within 200 yards of Highway 36, 2 miles north of Pinewood Springs, and 1 mile north of the fire, 7NEWS reported. Some wereckage from the plane actually fell onto Highway 36, the station said.

The plane 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 slurry 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 started a fire and 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 fires.


"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 for firefighting.

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 said.


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 retardent, and then be back in the sky again -- all within 15 minutes, 7NEWS reported.

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," Westra said.



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 told to evacuate as the out-of-control blaze more than doubled in size Thursday, 7NEWS reported.


The evacuation order Thursday affected the 124 homes in the Big Elk Meadows subdivision near Pinewood Springs.

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 is home.


Residents were told to gather at Estes Park High School, where a Red Cross Shelter was 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.


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. Firefighters were dreading fighting the fire Friday without the aid of air tankers. Only water bucket-carrying helicopters were available to help.

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 still 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 said.


The families that were evacuated Thursday were first evacuated Wednesday afternoon and then allowed to return to their homes shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday night when the fire appeared to have laid down.


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, next to County Road 47.


The blaze was first reported just after 3 p.m., Wednesday in the area of Big Elk Meadows, about 1 mile northwest 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 fight.
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, and three helicopters are at the scene, and more are expected, said a spokesman for the National Forest Service.


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."


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