Pilot Death is 2nd amid Late Season Wildfires in Rockies
Authorities have been investigating the death of a pilot who crashed while fighting a wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park at night, the second person to die amid wind-driven, late season wildfires in the Rockies this week.
The pilot of the single-engine air tanker was found dead Tuesday night south of Estes Park about three hours after authorities received reports of a crash, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said. The pilot was the only person on board, it said.
KUSA-TV reported that it spoke to the pilot who died before he took off, saying that he was excited for the night time flight, which he said was the culmination of about five years of hard work.
The pilot's name has not been released by the coroner's office but the company he worked for and the state's firefighting agency identified him as Marc Thor Olson. The company, CO Fire Aviation, said Olson was an Army and Air Force veteran with 42 years of flight experience.
The sheriff's office hired the plane to fight the fire because of the fire's potential to spread quickly in dry, windy conditions and because the terrain made it too dangerous to have firefighters fight it on the ground, it said in a statement. The plane was able to drop a load of water on the fire before the pilot reported turbulent conditions on its second flight over the fire about an hour later, according to the sheriff's office. Shortly after, crews heard the plane crash, it said.
"Recent advances in technology to achieve night air operations already in use in other states has proven to be an effective tactic to help prevent medium-sized fires from exploding and making large runs like we saw last year," the office said, noting its experience with 2020's massive Cameron Peak Fire, which burned over 313 square miles (811 square kilometers).
Colorado officials have been studying the use of the use of aircraft to fight wildfires at night — when fires are typically less active due to lower temperatures, reduced winds and increased humidity — but has been focused on helicopters. The state has contracts to use CO Fire Aviation planes to fight fires but they do not provide for flying planes at night, said Melissa Lineberger, the chief of staff for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator arrived Wednesday and planned to work with firefighters and law enforcement to get to the crash site and document it before the fire could potentially burn the area, agency spokesperson Peter Knudson said. What kind of equipment the Air Tractor AT-802A had to fight fires at night would be something investigators would look at, he said.
Earlier this week, another wind-driven wildfire led to the death a person near Wyoming's border with Montana.
Firefighters fully contained that fire that burned about half a square mile in the area of Clark, an unincorporated community of about 300 people just south of the Montana line. The fire happened when a branch blew into a power line and caught fire, Park County Fire Warden Jerry Parker said.
In south-central Montana, a fire reported late Monday night led the Stillwater County Sheriff's Office to order evacuations southwest of the town of Absarokee.
The Colorado fire was also started by high winds. Investigators found wind blew a tree onto a nearby powerline causing it to arc and start the fire, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said.
The fire started amid warmer-than-normal temperatures and drought conditions in much of Colorado though the weather was cooler Wednesday after some light snow fell in parts of the mountains. No measurable snow fell in Denver, which is on track to set a record for its latest snowfall, according to the National Weather Service.
The fire did not grow much overnight and was estimated to have burned about 145 acres (57 hectares) as of Wednesday, with the fire considered contained around 40% of its perimeter, the U.S. Forest Service said. Firefighters hoped to take advantage of cooler temperatures and lighter winds to stop its growth, it said.