Helicopter pilot killed while fighting fire in Spain

A helicopter pilot was killed on Wednesday December 23 while fighting a fire in Spain. According to the AFP the helicopter caught fire after it crashed in a rural area in the Asturias region.

When rescuers arrived the pilot, the sole occupant, was already deceased, local emergency services personnel reported.

Lawsuit accuses CAL FIRE of keeping pilots’ grieving families ignorant of death benefits

Families of firefighting pilots killed in the line of duty in California have filed a lawsuit charging that officials in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) intentionally misinformed them of their entitlement to death benefits.

According to the Sacramento Bee,

They “intentionally misrepresented to the survivors that the only available death benefit they might apply for was those available from” the federal government, the claim states. “Cal Fire executives made these representations knowing them to be false, and at the time they were well aware of the existence of benefits required to be paid under (state law).”

The lawsuit lists 14 pilots that were killed while fighting fires in California. Two of those were employees of DynCorp which has a contract to provide pilots and maintenance for the state’s S-2 air tankers. The other 12 worked for air tanker companies under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

If a federal firefighter is killed in the line of duty, their survivors receive over $300,000 from the federal government under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) program. The amount varies from year to year. However the PSOB denies benefits to firefighters that are not regular employees; contract or AD employees are not eligible.

The seven AD crew members that died in the 2008 helicopter crash in northern California were not eligible. The four AD firefighters that were killed in the crash of their van on the way to a fire in Colorado in 2002 were not eligible. Contract air tanker pilots are not eligible.

Families of deceased ground and aerial firefighters have fought for these benefits for years, unsuccessfully.

The lawsuit claims that CAL FIRE encouraged the pilots’ survivors to apply for the PSOB program without telling them that the California Public Resources Code requires that the state provide to them an amount equal to the PSOB benefit plus funds equal to the annual salary of a mid-career CAL FIRE firefighter.

Another interesting section of that law states that the provisions…

…shall be applicable irrespective of whether the department contracts directly with the pilot or contracts with a third party that employs or contracts with pilots.

The attorney for the lawsuit, Paul Goyette, is hanging his hat on that provision, saying it applies even to pilots working for a company that has a contract with the USFS if the fatality occurred in California. The state has a written agreement with the USFS to share firefighting resources, including aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

…The complaint contends that [CAL FIRE Director Ken] Pimlott and his No. 2, Janet Barentson, knew that state law requires Cal Fire pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. At some point, Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, an administrator at the department’s Ione Academy who also worked with deceased firefighters’ families, discovered the law and brought it up with both superiors, the lawsuit says.

“Defendants Pimlott and Barentson ordered Assistant Chief Ramirez not to disclose the existence of (the law) to any (of the families),” the court filing states, and threatened that “his career would be placed in jeopardy” if he disobeyed. Meanwhile, they ordered Ramirez to continue pressing federal officials to pay benefits, even though it was clear such efforts were “futile,” the lawsuit states.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton responded with a two-sentence email to The Sacramento Bee late Friday: “No. This allegation is not true.”

Mr. Ramirez was one of the CAL FIRE employees working at their Ione fire academy that was fired after an instructor there, Battalion Chief Orville Fleming, arrested after a 16-day manhunt, was charged with and later convicted of the murder of his mistress. That investigation uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate alcohol use at the Ione facility. Eventually 16 CAL FIRE employees either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees were replaced at the academy.

The graphic below is from the Sacramento Bee.

Deceased California air tanker pilots

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick and Kirk.

Pilot killed in Alberta air tanker crash last month identified

For several days the name of the Conair pilot killed in the May 22 crash of an air tanker in Alberta was not released, but now we know that his name was William Hilts.

Below is an excerpt from the Edmonton Sun:

Though the family of William Hilts is grieving his loss after the plane he was piloting crashed near Cold Lake, Alta., on May 22, where he was fighting wildfires, they have found comfort in the outpouring of condolences and gratitude from the community.

“It gives us a side of him that we never thought of. We always thought of him as a pilot more than a firefighter, but then you realize the role that those guys play in the community,” said his father, Stuart Hilts.

The 38-year-old pilot was fighting wildfires in an Air Tractor AT-802 “Fire Boss” amphibious water bomber for Conair Aerial Firefighting, under contract to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), when his plane crashed on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range on May 22 around 5:20 p.m…

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of Mr. Hilts.

Pilot killed in Alberta air tanker crash

From the Toronto Sun:

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“The lone occupant of a firefighting plane that crashed Friday afternoon [May 22, 2015] in northern Alberta has died, a company spokesman confirmed.

Jeff Berry of Conair Aerial Firefighting told Postmedia Network that the plane, an AT-802 Fireboss amphibious water bomber, crashed just after 4:30 p.m. MDT, about 40 km north of Cold Lake near the Saskatchewan border.

Crews are fighting an out-of-control 300 ha wildfire in the area, in the vicinity of Burnt Lake, Alta., near the CFB Cold Lake’s weapons range and an Imperial Oil facility.

Berry said the 37-year old pilot was no stranger to fighting wildfires.

“This was his fourth season, so he was well-experienced,” Berry said.

Berry said the single-seater plane was relatively new, built in 2009.

AT-802F Fire Boss
File photo of one of Conair’s AT-802F Fire Boss air tankers. Photo by Peter Unmuth.

He expressed his condolences to the friends and family of the pilot, and expressed his gratitude to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and Cold Lake Search and Rescue for their quick response.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada was sending an investigation team, expected to arrive Saturday morning, TSB spokesman Julie Leroux confirmed.

Cold Lake is about 230 km northeast of Edmonton.”

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Our sincere condolences go out to the the pilot’s family, friends, and to Conair.

The fire is in the Cold Lake Weapons Range, 40 km (25 miles) north of Cold Lake near Burnt Lake, and has burned approximately 3000 hectares (7400 acres).

Nurse dies after falling from hoist on medical helicopter during rescue mission in Texas

From the AP:

AUSTIN, Texas — A nurse died after falling from a hoist on a medical helicopter while rescuing a woman from a hiking trail in Austin, emergency personnel said Tuesday.

Kristin McLain, 46, became detached from the hoist Monday night as the rescued hiker was lifted to the EC-145 helicopter from the Barton Creek Greenbelt where she had taken a fall, according to a STAR Flight news release.

McLain died at the scene. STAR Flight did not release any information about why or how far she fell. The company uses four helicopters for rescues and emergency transport in Travis County.

Lisa Block, a spokeswoman for Travis County Emergency Services, had few details on the circumstances of McLain’s death. She said the hoist is an arm that extends off the helicopter that allows rescuers to direct a carrier to a patient and that “typically a rescuer will go with that carrier.”

Kristin McLain
Photo of Kristin McLain posted at STAR Flight Hangar, via KXAN

Our sincere condolences go out to the family and co-workers of Kristin McLain.

Two firefighters die in South Africa helicopter crash

Two firefighters died when a helicopter crashed in South Africa on April 22, killing the pilot Darrel Rea (39) and crewmember Jastun Visagie (23).

A company spokesperson said, “While landing at the fire scene in strong winds the Bell UH-1H (Huey) impacted a mountainside in Bain’s Kloof close to Wellington”. They were landing in order to configure the helicopter to drop water.

Working on Fire Aviation CEO Johan Heine said: “We are saddened by the loss of a very experienced pilot and crew member and wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to families as well as colleagues and the firefighting fraternity”.

“Mr Rea‚ who was the chief pilot for WoF Aviation‚ had total helicopter flying time experience in excess of 3‚300 hours and had worked for WoF Aviation for the last eight years. All WoF pilots are recruited‚ selected and trained to the highest international standards‚” Heine said. Visagie joined Working on Fire in 2013.

WoF Aviation has been engaged in Aerial Fire Fighting in South Africa since 1986.

According to their website, WoF is a government-funded, job-creation program focusing on Intergrated Fire Management in South Africa. WoF fire fighters are recruited from marginalised communities and trained in fire awareness and education, prevention and fire suppression skills. These young men and women form veld and forest fire fighting ground crews, stationed at bases around the country to help stop the scourge of wildfire which costs the South African economy billions of rands annually.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families and co-workers of Mr. Rea and Mr. Visagie.

Funeral services held for victims of Mississippi helicopter crash

Funeral services were held Saturday for the two firefighters who were killed in the March 30 crash of a helicopter that was being used on a prescribed fire in southern Mississippi.

Below is an excerpt from an article at WLOX:

WIGGINS, MS (WLOX) – First Baptist Church in Wiggins has a capacity of 300 people. For Steve Cobb’s memorial service on Saturday, there were 500 in the sanctuary.

This followed the more than 1,000 who attended the four-hour visitation on Friday.

People came from all over the state and country to find comfort and encouragement from one another and to try to understand how the long-time U.S. Forest Service employee died too soon.

The funeral service for pilot Brandon Ricks was also held Saturday in his hometown of Blanchard, Oklahoma.

The lone survivor, Brendan Mullen, continues to recover at the University of South Alabama Medical Center’s burn unit in Mobile.

The investigation into the crash by multiple agencies will likely last months if not a year or more.

Many attending the service were members of the U.S. Forest Service. The service was broadcast outside the church so that the message of his legacy could be heard loud and clear to everyone.

Obituary for Brandon Ricks.
Update on the condition of Brendan Mullen.

Several teams helping manage helicopter crash incident

(UPDATED at 9 a.m. MDT, April 2, 2015)

Below is information released by the incident management team that is helping to manage the helicopter crash incident in Mississippi.

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On Monday, March 30, 2015, a helicopter assisting with a controlled burn on the De Soto National Forest crashed killing two firefighters and injuring a third. Killed were Brandon Ricks, 40, of Oklahoma, a pilot for T&M Aviation of Abbeville, Louisiana and Steve Cobb, 55, of Wiggins, Mississippi, an engineering technician for De Soto National Forest. Injured was Brendan Mullen, 42, a supervisory forestry technician from Helena National Forest in Montana.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of Brandon Ricks and Steve Cobb and we wish a rapid recovery for Brendan Mullen. Cards or letters of support to the Cobb family can be sent to De Soto Ranger District at 654 West Frontage Road. Wiggins, MS 39577. We will post information on how to send condolences to the Ricks family when we receive it.

Brendan Mullen is recovering with burns on approximately 15 percent of his body. He is stable and will require skin grafts. Cards and letters of support for him can be sent to Helena National Forest, ATTN: Helena Aviation Center, 2880 Skyway Drive, Helena, MT 59602. You can also follow his progress and wish him well at CaringBridge.

The Regional Forester arrived to meet with Desoto District employees. Critical Response Protocol Teams arrived to assist employees. ASC Benefits Counselors have been assigned to assist affected employees/families. The helicopter fuselage has been removed from the site. The Southern Area (Red) Type 1 Incident Management Team is providing facilitation/coordination and information flow between the Critical Stress Protocol Teams and Forest employees.

The Team will continue to provide facilitation, coordination, and information flow between the National Forests in Mississippi and the Desoto Ranger District with the National Transportation Safety Board, Critical Response Protocol Teams, Albuquerque Service Center and local law enforcement, fire department and affected businesses. The Red Team will initiate planning for memorial service tentatively scheduled for Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4.

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(Originally published at 11:48 a.m. MDT, April 1, 2015)

In addition to the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Stephanie Johnson, a spokesperson for the U. S. Forest Service, said the agency has dispatched three teams to manage the helicopter crash incident in southern Mississippi on the Desoto National Forest.

Two were killed in the crash, pilot Brandon Wicks of T & M Aviation, and Stephen W. Cobb of the USFS. Supervisory Forestry Technician Brendan Mullen of the USFS was injured and transported to a hospital.

A short version of Mike Dueitt’s Type 1 Incident Management Team was ordered on March 30. Typically on an incident like this an IMT will handle operational details, as well as work with the families of the victims to plan the final arrangements including in some cases a memorial service that might be attended by a large number of people.

A Critical Response Protocol team will be reviewing the accident to determine if there are any lessons to be learned.

And finally, a Critical Incident Stress team will assist employees and others in recovering emotionally from the tragedy.