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California grounds air tankers after deadly crash

October 8, 2014

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — California’s fleet of air tankers was temporarily grounded Wednesday after one crashed in Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot.

The grounding left the park service with a single contract helicopter assisting firefighters battling a blaze that had grown overnight to 210 acres (85 hectares) and led to the evacuation of 60 homes in Foresta, on the famed park’s western boundary.

The community was not in imminent danger and was benefitting from containment lines created during a previous fire, said Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. There was no containment on the so-called Dog Rock Fire, which forced the closing of the major western entrance into the heart of the park.

Four California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection aircraft had been fighting the fire Tuesday afternoon, including three air tankers dropping retardant as the fire climbed a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River, said department spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.

One of the planes hit the canyon wall, disintegrating and spilling pieces of the twin-engine aircraft onto a state highway, which remained closed Wednesday. The pilot’s flag-draped body was recovered Wednesday and was accompanied by an honor guard as it was turned over to CalFire officials.

Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, 62,, was a 13-year veteran pilot of Dyncorp International, who flew the air tanker under contract with the state.

Michael Sansbury, deputy chief ranger at Yosemite National Park, said several search units converged at a crash scene that was almost a quarter-mile (a half-kilometer) long. The recovery was more difficult because of the active fire in the area, he said at a news conference Wednesday.

DynCorp International provides pilots for all CalFire planes and maintenance for the department’s aircraft.

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Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala contributed from San Francisco.

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