A heavy air tanker fighting forest fires crashed near the border of Utah and Nevada on Sunday afternoon, killing two crew members, a Bureau of Land Management official said.
According to the Missoulian newspaper, the heavy air tanker was piloted by Capt. Todd Neal Tompkins and co-piloted by First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho, said the sheriff’s department of Iron County, Utah.
Chris Hanefeld, a fire spokesman for the BLM, said the plane crashed before 1 p.m. in the Hamblin Valley area of Western Utah.
The U.S. Forest Service was contracting the P-2V owned by Neptune Aviation Services, of Missoula, Mont.
The crash occurred near Pioche, in Lincoln County, which is about 180 miles north of Las Vegas.
Those aboard the air tanker were dropping retardant on the White Rock Fire that was reported about 10 p.m. Friday in Lincoln County.
By Saturday night, the fire had grown to nearly 5,000 acres and crossed the state line into Iron County, Utah. The fire is burning in rugged terrain covered by pinion-pine and juniper trees, sagebrush and grass, Hanefeld said in a statement.
He said an emergency response team and an accident investigation team was headed to the crash site. The cause of the crash was unknown.
Crews were pulled off the fire lines after the crash.
“To have them working on the fire lines after this is more than we would like to ask firefighters,” said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “It’s obviously a horrifying and tragic event.”
Firefighters didn’t expect to have the fire fully contained until Saturday, Hanefeld said.
Also Sunday afternoon, the crew of another firefighting P-2V air tanker reported it was unable to lower all of its landing gear and land at Minden-Tahoe Airport in western Nevada. That crew had been helping with efforts to fight a wildfire near the airport, which is about 50 miles south of Reno.
Crew members flew the plane for another 90 minutes to burn off fuel before making an emergency landing on a cleared runway, Douglas County sheriff’s spokesman Jim Halsey said.
The aircraft sustained significant damage after it slid off the runway, but both crew members escaped injury, he said.
Sunday’s incidents come several months after a group of Western senators questioned whether the Forest Service was moving quickly enough to build up and replace the fleet of aging planes that drop fire retardant on wildfires.
The agency hires a mix of large and small airplanes and helicopters each year to fight wildfires. They are generally privately owned and work under contract.
Retardant dropped from planes is typically used to bolster a line cut by firefighters on the edge of a fire, and water dropped from helicopters is usually used to cool hotspots within a fire.
The current fleet is made up of Lockheed P-2Vs, anti-submarine patrol planes dating to the 1950s that have been modified with jets to supplement the piston engines. More than half are due to retire in 10 years.
The number of large aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004, when the Forest Service grounded 33 air tankers after a number of high-profile crashes.
In March, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked the Government Accountability Office to evaluate whether the Forest Service has done a good job of analyzing the types and numbers of aircraft needed, the cheapest way to get them, new technologies and where the planes will be based.
Gov. Brian Sandoval released a statement that referenced the two aircraft emergencies.
“Within a matter of hours this afternoon, planes carrying two U.S. Forest Service crews crashed while fighting Nevada fires,” the statement read. “Currently, we know of one successful emergency landing in Minden and one potentially far more serious crash northeast of Pioche. The thoughts and prayers of all Nevadans are with the firefighters, the plane crews and all of their families.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Antonio Planas at email@example.com or 702-383-4638.