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Air tanker crashes while fighting fire at Yosemite; pilot dies

Air tanker crashes while fighting fire at Yosemite; pilot dies
Smoke rises from the wreckage of a state-owned air tanker that crashed Tuesday while fighting the Dog Rock fire at Yosemite National Park. (Donald Talend / Associated Press)

An air tanker battling a wildfire at Yosemite National Park crashed Tuesday afternoon, coming to rest on a granite cliff. The pilot was found dead, officials said.

By Tuesday night, rescuers had climbed to the wreckage, which was perched on a 2,500-foot escarpment near El Portal, the park's west entrance.

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A National Park Service search and rescue team was the first to set out for the site in the late afternoon, lighting a path with headlamps. Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency's S2-T tanker crashed while fighting the 130-acre Dog Rock fire. Debris from the crash was scattered on Highway 140, which was closed because of the blaze.

Berlant said it was believed the pilot was alone in the plane, which came down in an area where many Yosemite employees reside and few tourists visit. The cause of the crash has not been determined.

Officials did not identify the pilot or his home base. Berlant said the pilot worked for DynCorp International, which also maintains Cal Fire's planes.

The Dog Rock fire was first reported about 2:45 p.m. The tanker was among a handful of aircraft fighting the blaze, which broke out on El Portal Road between the park's boundary and the Arch Rock entrance station, officials said.

Word of Tuesday's crash spread quickly through the small and tight-knit community of fire aviation.

"This is a stunning development," said Bill Gabbert, a wildfire expert who operates a popular website, Wildfire Today. "Any crash is a huge deal."

Attacking fires from the air is extremely dangerous, and firefighting planes have crashed. The last time a Cal Fire air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots.

The pilot is usually alone in the aircraft, but there are times when a mechanic or a pilot in training are onboard, Cal Fire officials said.

The small S2-T tankers are the workhorses of the U.S. firefighting fleet. The U.S. Forest Service — and a few state agencies such as Cal Fire — obtained the twin-engine planes from the Pentagon's "boneyard" as much as 50 years after they were used by the military to chase submarines.

The planes' safety record has been under scrutiny in recent years.

Cal Fire's tankers have been retrofitted for firefighting, adding turboprop engines and fitting reservoirs that carry 1,200 gallons of retardant.

The small planes are most effective for "initial attack," in the early hours of a fire when managers seek to prevent small fires from growing to unmanageable size.

Retardant drops do not put out fires but slow the flames' progress, allowing ground crews to move in and more safely create fire lines.

When the payload of retardant is dropped, the plane returns to a remote base to refuel and take on more retardant. Small tankers are prized for their ability to make a number of sorties each day and for their maneuverability, particularly in California's canyon fires.

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Gabbert called S-2Ts dependable.

"I'm not aware of a chronic problems," he said.

California is one of a handful of states to maintain a fleet of firefighting planes. Cal Fire has 23 S-2T tankers operated by DynCorp, which also provides the pilots. The McLean, Va., company's performance with Cal Fire was awarded the Diamond Award of Excellence in 2012 and 2013 by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The federal fleet has been shrinking, as the Forest Service seeks to modernize the planes. The agency has for some time sought to entice the aviation industry to build a dedicated firefighting plane, to no avail.

Twitter: @AdolfoFlores3

Twitter: @julie_cart

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