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California grounds air tankers after deadly crash

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California’s fleet of air tankers was temporarily grounded Wednesday after one crashed in Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot.

The grounding left the park service with a single contract helicopter assisting firefighters battling a blaze that had grown overnight to 210 acres and led to the evacuation of 60 homes in Foresta, on the famed park’s western boundary.

The community was not in imminent danger and was benefitting from containment lines created during a previous fire, said Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. There was no containment on the so-called Dog Rock Fire, which forced the closing of the major western entrance into the heart of the park.

Four California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection aircraft had been fighting the fire Tuesday afternoon, including three air tankers dropping retardant as the fire climbed a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River, said department spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.

One of the planes hit the canyon wall, disintegrating and spilling pieces of the twin-engine aircraft onto State Highway 140, which remained closed Wednesday. The pilot’s flag-draped body was recovered Wednesday and was accompanied by an honor guard as it was turned over to CalFire officials.

Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, 62, of San Jose, was a 13-year veteran pilot of Dyncorp International, who flew the air tanker under contract with the state.

“We know wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, but Craig made the ultimate sacrifice,” CalFire Director Ken Pimlott said in a statement.

Michael Sansbury, deputy chief ranger at Yosemite National Park, said several search units converged at a crash scene that was almost a quarter-mile long. The recovery was more difficult because of the active fire in the area, he said at a news conference Wednesday.

DynCorp International provides pilots for all CalFire planes and maintenance for the department’s aircraft.

The precautionary stand-down affects only the department’s fleet of 22 S-2T air tankers like the one involved in the crash, said CalFire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith.

The department’s helicopters are available to help fight wildfires in a fire season that has been extended by drought and unseasonably hot and dry weather, she said, as is a DC-10 that is on standby and is capable of dropping large amounts of chemical fire retardant. The agency can also call on aircraft under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies, or call out specially equipped California National Guard helicopters and air tankers.

“They are available and ready if needed,” Smith said.

Cobb said the park service had its own contract for the helicopter that was being used to fight the fire.

“We definitely still have enough resources to effectively fight the fire,” Cobb said.

Smith said her agency had been assisting the Forest Service on three other fires burning in Northern California. It was not clear how long CalFire’s grounding of the S-2T aircraft will last she said.

“We call it the safety stand down and make sure we check on the safety of our pilots as well as our aircraft,” she said.

The last time the S-2Ts were grounded was in 2001, when two of the aircraft collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, she said.

Pilots of a different type of aircraft were grounded for the same reason in 2006, when a fire battalion chief and a pilot were killed while observing a fire in a two-seat plane in Tulare County, she said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the crash. Officials said the weather at the time was clear and the winds were calm.

Tolmachoff said it was unclear if smoke from the fire or isolated updrafts or downdrafts created by the canyon walls may have played a part in the crash.

“That’s a huge part of the question that the investigators are going to be looking at,” she said.


Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala contributed from San Francisco.