Pilot killed in helicopter crash while fighting California wildfire

National

COALINGA, Calif. (KSEE) — A pilot killed in a helicopter crashed in central California Wednesday morning has been identified by family members as Mike Fournier, 52 of Rancho Cucamonga.

Authorities said he was the only person abroad the helicopter when it crashed.

The helicopter involved in firefighting operations crashed under unknown circumstances 11 miles south of New Coalinga Municipal Airport around 10 a.m., said Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman.

Michael John Fournier (Fresno County Sheriff’s Office)

The crash site was in a remote area southwest of the blaze.

The helicopter was confirmed to have belonged to a company contracted to make water drops on the Hills Fire burning in the hills near Coalinga, said Cal Fire spokesman Seth Brown.

Coalinga is about 65 miles southwest of Fresno, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

An employee confirmed the company is Guardian Helicopters, based in Fillmore California in Ventura County. They did not want to comment but their website lists services including firefighting, and shows pictures of the same model helicopter identified in the crash — a Bell UH-1H.

Brown said it’s common for agencies to contract equipment and personnel to fight wildfires.

“We had on the incident several privately contracted helicopters assisting us with water drops the past couple days,” he said.

The crash sparked another fire, which eventually merged with the Hills fire making it tough for Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue crews to access. Rugged terrain, triple digit temperatures and wind also added to the challenge.

Brown said a tragedy like this is uncommon in wildland fire fighting.

“Actual injuries to firefighters and contractors are rare when you think of how many people are out here how many moving parts there are. Any type of aircraft crash is extremely rare,” he said.

Search and Rescue members collected Fournier’s body at around 8:30 p.m. and said it took a total of 6 1/2 hours to get in and out of the scene, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. They also said they covered him with an American flag.

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