9 Firefighters in California Helicopter Crash Are Presumed Dead

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 6 -- Nine firefighters were missing and presumed dead after a helicopter crashed this week while ferrying them to one of the blazes still raging in Northern California.

The nine were believed to have been consumed by the flames that erupted after the Sikorsky S-61 fell out of the sky Tuesday night about 35 miles northwest of Redding "under unknown circumstances," said a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The four survivors were seriously burned, with two listed in critical condition.

The crash brought to 15 the death toll from what is by far California's worst fire year on record. More than 1.4 million acres have burned so far "and it's the sixth of August," said Dan Sendek, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We're just getting into the thick of fire season right now."

Still ahead are the notoriously dry, intense Santa Ana winds. Last fall, they drove blazes that prompted hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate their Southern California homes.

This year, almost all of the fires have burned in the forests of Northern California, where more than 1 million acres were blackened in June after a flurry of lightning strikes. Dry conditions and what Sendek called "this last lightening siege" account for most of the 13 fires now burning. Most, including the fire the helicopter was traveling toward, are largely contained.

Officials said the helicopter's two crewmen were carrying 11 firefighters to the "Iron Complex," the name assigned to a series of 23 fires that together have consumed more than 84,000 acres.

At least some of the firefighters worked for Greyback Forestry, a Merlin, Ore., firm that contracts with government agencies, said Greyback payroll clerk Donna Hadsell. The privately owned aircraft, a civilian version of the U.S. Navy Sea King, was under contract from Carson Helicopters, which has offices in Oregon and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

It went down about 7:30 p.m. in the Trinity-Shasta National Forest, about 15 miles northwest of Junction City.

"This area is steep, remote and rugged and difficult to access," Trinity forest supervisor Sharon Heywood said in a statement. "I ask the public to join me in our thoughts and prayers for the fire personnel, family and friends."

An accident investigation team from the National Transportation Safety Board was en route to the scene from Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

The National Fire Protection Association called the crash the worst to occur in the fighting of a wildfire. The group says about 100 firefighters die on duty each year.

In California, the year's previous wildfire fatalities include two people killed directly by fire -- a firefighter overtaken by a blaze he was scouting and a civilian whose body was found in a house after a blaze swept through.

Another firefighter was killed by a falling tree, and yet another died of a heart attack. Two others were killed in accidents during "rest cycles" -- one in a motorcycle accident, the other in a drowning.

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