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Oct 8, 2014 1:22 AM

California pilot dies in crash fighting wildfire

The Associated Press

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) Authorities say a pilot is dead after his air tanker crashed while fighting a California wildfire near Yosemite National Park.

State fire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith says Tuesday night that rescue crews reached the wreckage of the crash and confirmed the pilot's death several hours after the plane went down.

The pilot's family has requested no name be released until all immediate family members can be notified.

Witnesses say the plane smashed into a canyon wall about 4:30 p.m. and virtually disintegrated on impact.

The pilot is believed to be the only person aboard the air tanker.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

An air tanker fighting a wildfire near Yosemite National Park in Northern California smashed into a steep canyon wall Tuesday, but there was no immediate word on the condition of the pilot, who was believed to be the only person aboard, officials said.

The plane went down about 4:30 p.m. within a mile of the park's west entrance, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. Rescue crews were working their way through difficult terrain to reach the plane's wreckage.

"It's very rugged terrain," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We determined there was a crash, but they're still trying to work their way through pretty rugged terrain to determine the status of the pilot. Obviously we're hoping for the best, but the situation is very serious."

California Highway Patrol Sgt. Chris Michael said he was stopping traffic along state Route 140 at the west entrance to the park about 4:24 p.m. when he witnessed the crash.

"I heard a large explosion, I looked up on the steep canyon wall and saw aircraft debris was actually raining down the side of the mountain after the impact," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "It hit the steep side of the canyon wall. It appeared from the direction he was going, he was trying to make a drop down the side of the canyon when he hit the canyon wall."

The fire was spreading up the canyon wall, and it appeared the pilot was trying to lay down fire retardant to stop its progress, Michael said.

"It most definitely did disintegrate on impact," he said. "It was nothing. I didn't see anything but small pieces."

Pieces of the aircraft landed on the highway and came close to hitting fire crews on the ground nearby, but no one on the ground was injured, he said.

"It came pretty close to hitting them, but they were far enough away that it missed them, fortunately," he said.

The airplane, manufactured in 2001, is an S-2T air tanker, which is flown by a single pilot and normally has no other crew members. The tanker uses twin turbine engines and is capable of carrying 1,200 gallons of fire retardant, said another CalFire spokesman, Daniel Berlant.

Don Talend, of West Dundee, Illinois, said he also may have seen the plane go down. Talend and friends were vacationing at the park when they stopped to snap some photographs of the fire, which was several miles away.

The plane "disappeared into the smoke and you heard a boom," he told The Associated Press by phone.

"I couldn't believe what I saw," Talend said. "There was actually a ranger there behind us. ... He had a look of disbelief on his face."

The missing pilot is an employee of DynCorp., a contractor that provides the pilots for all CalFire planes and maintenance for the department's aircraft, Upton said.

The fire had broken out about 90 minutes earlier Tuesday near Route 140, which leads into the heart of the park. It had grown to about 130 acres by Tuesday evening and forced the evacuation of several dozen homes near the community of Foresta.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration were investigating the crash and were expected to arrive at the crash site Wednesday morning, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

FAA records show the plane is registered to the U.S. Forest Service, which originally provided the plane to CalFire, Upton said.

The last time a CalFire air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, Berlant said.

The agency had another plane crash in 2006, when a fire battalion chief and a pilot were killed while observing a fire in a two-seat plane in Tulare County.


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