The pilot of a Cal Fire airtanker was killed Tuesday when his plane crashed near Arch Rock while battling the fast-moving Dog Rock Fire, which broke out Tuesday afternoon near one of the western gates of Yosemite National Park.
The plane crashed around 4:30 p.m. at the top of a 2,500 cliff, as Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb told the L.A. Times. Rescue workers had to scale the cliff to reach the crash site.
"It's taken a while for rescuers to get back into the area," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told the Times. "They're not at the scene yet, but they can see the aircraft." As of this morning, all Cal Fire airtankers remain on a safety stand-down.
When crews did reach the crash site, the pilot, who was the only one aboard the plane when it went down, was confirmed to have died in the crash. As Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott said in a statement, "This crash underscores just how inherently dangerous wildland firefighting is and the job is further compounded this year by extreme fire conditions."
The last time a Cal Fire pilot died in the line of duty was in 2006. Investigators were still working to determine why the plane crashed Tuesday though it should be noted that some of Cal Fire's fleet of airtankers, acquired from the Defense Department in the mid-1990s, are 60 years old. Nationwide, at least 36 crew members have been killed flying U.S. Forest Service planes since 1994, with engine fires and wings breaking off mid-flight among the reasons for the casualties.
The S2 Tracker is one of Cal Fire's first-response aircraft, used to drop up to 1,200 gallons of retardant from its belly on wildfires when they first break out. Cal Fire has 26 of the dual-prop aircraft strategically placed around the state.
The Dog Rock Fire started just before 3 p.m. Tuesday and spread to 130 acres in a matter of hours. The location along El Portal Road, near the Arch Rock entrance station, is very near the area burned earlier this summer by the El Portal Fire, which scorched 4,700 acres between late July and early August. About 60 homes in the mountain community of Foresta have just been evacuated, according to NBC News, and El Portal Road, also known as Highway 140, was closed with no signs that it would reopen anytime soon.
In other news, by far the largest fire of this season, the King Fire which began on September 13, has now burned nearly 100,000 acres in El Dorado County and is 98 percent contained.