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The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the fatal crash of a single-engine air tanker over the Kruger Rock fire in Larimer County on Tuesday evening.
The pilot, who has not been publicly identified, was reported to have crashed around 6:37 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. The crash site was found at 9:49 p.m. near the south end of Hermit Park, which is off U.S. 36 about five miles from the town of Estes Park.
The pilot was the only occupant in the plane. The plane was an Air Tractor AT-802A that belonged to CO Fire Aviation Inc., a Fort Morgan company that assists in aerial firefighting, according to a Federal Aviation Administration Registry. The company took down its website overnight.
According to FlightAware.com, an online flight tracker, the airplane left Fort Morgan Municipal Airport at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and flew several circles over the fire area before landing at 4:38 p.m. at Northern Colorado Regional Airport. The plane left from that airport at 4:38 p.m. to return to the burn area and was last seen around 6:36 p.m. over Longmont, the website’s data shows.
Earlier on Tuesday, Marc Salinger, a reporter with 9News, interviewed the airplane’s crew before it took off to fight the fire. A pilot told the TV station that the flight would be the first time a fixed-wing plane outfitted with night vision equipment would be deployed to fight a wildfire at night. The plane would be carrying a fire suppressant to dump on the flames, the pilot said.
The Kruger Rock fire started just before 7 a.m. Tuesday after high winds blew a tree onto a power line, causing it to arc and ignite dry vegetation, the sheriff’s office said. The fire quickly burned up a steep mountainside as the wind helped it spread.
More than 1,600 people were ordered to evacuate, and U.S. 36 between Lyons and Estes Park was closed as heavy smoke covered the highway.
As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burned 133 acres and was 15% contained.
No structures have been damaged, according to Larimer County’s Kruger Rock fire update website.
The Kruger Rock plane crash is third fatal air disaster related to firefighting in Estes Park.
During the 2002 Big Elk fire, two air tanker pilots — Rick Schwartz of Ulm, Montana, and Milt Stollack of Cathedral City, California — died on July 18 when their plane crashed while hauling slurry to pour on the fire, and helicopter pilot Gordon Knight died on July 30 when his Llama helicopter crashed.
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