August 7, 2008

9 Missing in Wildfire Copter Crash

By William M. Welch

LOS ANGELES -- Nine people were missing and presumed dead Wednesday after the crash of a helicopter carrying privately contracted firefighters from a wildfire in a remote section of national forest in Northern California, officials said.

Four others aboard were hospitalized with serious burns, including a pilot of the privately owned aircraft, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

The helicopter went down about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday while ferrying 11 firefighters and a crew of two, said Sharon Heywood, supervisor of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Redding, Calif.

They were returning from the front lines of the Buckhorn Fire, said Mike Odle, a forest spokesman.

The site of the crash is an extremely rugged, steep and remote wilderness 15 miles northwest of Junction City, Heywood said.

The National Fire Protection Association, a firefighters group, said it was the worst aircraft crash involving wild-land firefighters it knew of.

Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based group, said its statistics go back to the 1970s.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the aircraft burned after crashing "under unknown circumstances."

The National Safety Transportation Board dispatched investigators to the scene.

Recovery efforts have been complicated by the remote location, Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, told the Associated Press. "It's difficult to access," she said.

The helicopter was a Sikorsky S-61N registered to Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., and Perkasie, Pa.

Tami Hutchison, assistant director of operations, confirmed that two crewmembers aboard the helicopter worked for Carson.

She said some of the firefighters on the helicopter were employed by Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Ore.

Grayback owner Mike Wheelock did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Heywood said three of the survivors were taken by helicopter to University of California-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and a fourth was at Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

One was in critical condition and the other three, including the pilot, were in serious condition, she said.

Shasta-Trinity is the largest national forest in California, with peaks over 14,000 feet and 2.1 million acres of forest.

The Forest Service said the Buckhorn Fire was 25% contained and had burned 17,775 acres. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>