DENVER – Authorities on Wednesday were investigating the death of a pilot who crashed while fighting a wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park at night, the second person to die amid wind-driven, late season wildfires in the Rockies this week.
The pilot of the single-engine air tanker was found dead Tuesday night south of Estes Park about three hours after authorities received reports of a crash, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said. The pilot was the only person on board, it said.
KUSA-TV reported that it spoke to the pilot who died before he took off, saying that he was excited for the night time flight, which he said was the culmination of about five years of hard work.
The pilot's name has not been released by the coroner's office but the company he worked for and the state's firefighting agency identified him as Marc Thor Olson. The company, CO Fire Aviation, said Olson was an Army and Air Force veteran with 42 years of flight experience.
In a statement, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control said it has been studying the use of aircraft to fight wildfires at night — when fires are typically less active due to lower temperatures, reduced winds and increased humidity — but has been focused on helicopters. It said it did not hire the plane to fight the fire but said local authorities did.
“It is too early to know the cause of this tragedy and whether it is even related to night operations, but the DFPC, through its partnership with Larimer County, the U.S. Forest Service, the contract aircraft company CO-Fire Aviation, the FAA and the NTSB, hopes to learn all that we can from this tragedy to advance the safe and efficient use of aviation assets to effectively and safely respond to wildland fire during daytime and potential future night operations,” it said.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator arrived Wednesday and planned to work with firefighters and law enforcement to get to the crash site and document it before the fire could potentially burn the area, agency spokesperson Peter Knudson said. What kind of equipment the Air Tractor AT-802A had to fight fires at night would be something investigators would look at, he said.
Earlier this week, another wind-driven wildfire led to the death a person near Wyoming's border with Montana.
Firefighters fully contained that fire that burned about half a square mile in the area of Clark, an unincorporated community of about 300 people just south of the Montana line. The fire happened when a branch blew into a power line and caught fire, Park County Fire Warden Jerry Parker said.
In south-central Montana, a fire reported late Monday night led the Stillwater County Sheriff’s Office to order evacuations southwest of the town of Absarokee.
The Colorado fire was also started by high winds. Investigators found wind blew a tree onto a nearby powerline causing it to arc and start the fire, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said.
The fire started amid warmer-than-normal temperatures and drought conditions in much of Colorado though the weather was cooler Wednesday after some light snow fell in parts of the mountains. No measurable snow fell in Denver, which is on track to set a record for its latest snowfall, according to the National Weather Service.
The fire did not grow much overnight and was estimated to have burned about 140 acres (57 hectares) as of Wednesday, with the fire considered contained around 15% of its perimeter, the U.S. Forest Service said. Firefighters hoped to take advantage of cooler temperatures and lighter winds to stop its growth, it said.
Associated Press writer Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo. contributed to this report.