Fire raging through rugged, dense terrain complicated efforts Thursday to recover victims and evidence from a remote forested area in Northern California where a firefighting helicopter crashed. Nine people were presumed dead, but four others were rescued.
The aircraft was carrying 11 firefighters and two pilots when it went down and was destroyed by fire Tuesday night in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. The crash occurred just after the helicopter had picked up firefighters and lifted off from a small clearing to take them back to camp, officials said.
Four injured people — three firefighters and a pilot — were flown to hospitals. They were rescued from the burning wreckage by firefighters on the ground who had been waiting for another helicopter to pick them up, said Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Authorities can say with "fair certainty" that all nine — seven firefighters, a U.S. Forest Service employee and a pilot — died, said Trinity County Undersheriff Eric Palmer.
The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was still smoldering Thursday, according to Carson Helicopters Inc., which owned and operated the chopper.
It was the deadliest wildfire-fighting incident since 1994, when 14 firefighters were killed in a wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In 2003, eight Oregon firefighters returning home after fighting a blaze in Idaho were killed when their van collided with a truck outside Vale, Oregon.
The site can be reached only by aircraft or an eight-hour hike, said Sheriff Lorrac Craig, who was leading the recovery effort. Sheriff's officials had not yet pulled any bodies from the wreckage but were securing the site Thursday for NTSB investigators, who were en route.
Crews hoped to recover a voice data recorder from the wreckage for clues to the cause.
The firefighters had been working at the northern end of a fire burning on more than 27 square miles in the national forest, part of a larger complex of blazes that is mostly contained. Mike Wheelock, Grayback's founder and owner, said the company had two 20-person crews working the fire, a mix of young seasonal firefighters and professionals.
Meanwhile, fire crews worked to contain a series of small fires sparked by a storm that generated an estimated 2,000 lightning strikes in California, Oregon and Nevada over the past two days, said Basil Newmerzhycky, a Forest Service meteorologist.
None had grown into major blazes so far, Newmerzhycky said. By contrast, a storm on June 21 generated about 8,000 strikes that sparked more 2,000 fires, becoming the largest fire event in California history.
A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park that was started July 25 by a person taking target shooting practice was fully contained by Wednesday morning after destroying 30 homes and consuming about 53 square miles.
Before Tuesday’s helicopter crash, three firefighters had been killed while on duty in California this year, including one firefighter also assigned to battle the Shasta-Trinity blazes who was killed last month by a falling tree.
On July 2, a volunteer firefighter in Mendocino County died of a heart attack on the fire line. Another firefighter was killed July 26 in when he was burned while scouting a fire.