Nine missing, feared dead in crash of fire helicopter |

Nine missing, feared dead in crash of fire helicopter

Terence Chea and Marcus Wohlsen / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO – Nine people are presumed dead in the crash of a helicopter that was carrying firefighters over the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, officials said Wednesday.

The crash happened Tuesday night just after the helicopter picked up firefighters, who had been battling a blaze north of Junction City, from a clearing in a remote, rugged region of the forest, said Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The helicopter was carrying 11 firefighters and two crew members when it went down, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Four were airlifted to hospitals with severe burns, according to the Forest Service.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the Sikorsky S-61N chopper was destroyed by fire after crashing “under unknown circumstances.”

Firefighters who were waiting to be picked up helped rescue the four injured people after the helicopter crashed around 7:45 p.m. and caught fire, Rabuck said. About three dozen firefighters had to spend the night on the mountain because it became too dark for other helicopters to land, she said.

Nine people – a co-pilot and eight firefighters – still were missing in the wreckage and presumably killed. Recovery efforts have been complicated by the crash site’s remote location, and the wreckage still is burning, Rabuck said.

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The firefighters had been working at the north end of a more than 27-square-mile fire burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, part of a larger complex of blazes that total 135 square miles.

Some of the firefighters, including those in the hospital, were employed by contractor Grayback Forestry, based in Merlin, Ore. Mike Wheelock, Grayback’s founder and owner, would not confirm any deaths.

Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, as well as a co-pilot of the helicopter, were being treated at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, according to the contractor. Brown was upgraded to fair condition late Wednesday, and Frohreich remained in critical condition.

A spokesman said the hospital also was treating a victim in critical condition named William Coultas but could not confirm whether he was the helicopter’s co-pilot. Another Grayback employee, identified as Rick Schoeder, 42, was in serious but stable condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, officials said.

The helicopter was owned and operated by Carson Helicopters Inc., a Pennsylvania company with firefighting operations based in Grants Pass, Ore. All 12 of its helicopters are being used for firefighting in Oregon and California, said Bob Madden, Carson’s director of corporate affairs.

He said the two co-pilots were Carson employees – one was hospitalized, and the other was among the missing. The company would not release their names until officials confirmed their identities and notified family members.

Meanwhile, fire crews were busy containing a series of small fires sparked by an electrical storm that generated an estimated 2,000 lightning strikes in Northern California, Southern Oregon and Western Nevada on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Basil Newmerzhycky, a Forest Service meteorologist in Redding.

The lightning storm set off at least a “few dozen” small fires across the region, none of which had grown into major blazes so far, Newmerzhycky said. By contrast, a massive lightning storm June 21 generated about 8,000 strikes that sparked more 2,000 fires that became the largest fire event in California history.

The storm stoked a complex of blazes in rural Butte County that threatened about 70 homes. It more than doubled in size to 4 square miles after firefighters were forced to briefly retreat from unpredictable winds unleashed by passing thunderclouds, state fire officials said. That fire was about 20 percent contained Wednesday.

A wildfire outside Yosemite National Park that was started July 25 by a person taking target shooting practice was completely contained by Wednesday morning after destroying 30 homes and consuming about 53 square miles in Mariposa County. Officials revised their count of homes destroyed again – up from 28 – after surveying the damage.

Schwarzenegger also declared a state of emergency in Humboldt County on Wednesday because of the unhealthy air quality caused by fires there. It’s one of 13 county emergency declarations the governor has declared this year because of the blazes.

Before Tuesday’s helicopter crash, three firefighters had been killed while on duty in California this year, including one firefighter also assigned to battle the Shasta-Trinity blazes who was killed late last month by a falling tree.

On July 2, a volunteer firefighter in Mendocino County died of heart attack on the fire line. Another firefighter from Washington state was killed July 26 in Siskiyou County when he was burned while scouting a fire.