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Two Pilots Die in Air Tanker Crash

August 28, 2001

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HOPLAND, Calif. (AP) _ Two air tankers collided while dumping fire retardant on a Northern California wildfire, killing both pilots.

The 250-acre brush and tree fire about eight miles south of Ukiah burned four structures Monday and threatened more than a dozen others, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was 50 percent contained early Tuesday.

Formal identifications of the victims had not been released. However, the pilots assigned to the planes were identified as Larry Groff of Santa Rosa and Lars Stratt of Chico, forestry department spokeswoman Dianne Sanders said early Tuesday.

Jeff Anderson saw the collision from his deck.

``One went straight down into the ground and exploded immediately on impact. There was a fireball and lots of smoke,″ Anderson told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. ``The other one must have tried to maintain level flight a little longer, but 10 to 15 seconds later it crashed a little distance away.″

Flying conditions over fires are very dangerous, and many of the pilots are veterans of flying combat helicopters during the Vietnam War, said Karen Terrill, chief spokeswoman for the forestry department.

``I have talked to many of the pilots over the years, and they say they believe this is more dangerous than combat flying,″ Terrill said.

The pilots worked for San Joaquin Helicopters, a Delano, Calif.-based company the department has contracted with for a number of years, Terrill said. Both air tankers were converted Korean War-era Grumman S-2 submarine chasers capable of carrying 800 gallons of fire retardant.

Nine aircraft were being used to fight the blaze at the time of the collision, said Mendocino County sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Welch.

The blaze apparently was caused by a campfire, Sanders said. One man was arrested Monday and booked for investigation of unlawfully causing a fire, a felony.

Some residents evacuated voluntarily.

In Southern California, an 1,800-acre arson brush fire was 75 percent contained late Monday in the hills north of Los Angeles, just west of Interstate 5. No arrests had been made.

The blaze destroyed three structures, including at least one house, and burned to the doorsteps of several luxury homes. Residents were urged to evacuate.

``You never think this is going to happen, and so I came home after work and ... I realized that those hills are gone,″ teacher Phil Scorza, whose home was destroyed, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. Scorza had owned the home for four months.

Elsewhere, Montana crews battling a 23,500-acre wildfire between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park got help Monday from about 200 members of the state’s National Guard, bringing the number of firefighters to about 900.

In northwestern Montana just west of Glacier National Park, firefighters battling a 4,200-acre blaze were pulled back Monday because of safety concerns, fire information officer Vickie Guthrie said. About 500 firefighters joined the effort.


On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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