Helicopter Pilot Killed in Crash While Tackling California Wildfires

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

A helicopter pilot tackling the California wildfires died on Aug. 19 after his aircraft crashed during a water-dropping mission in Fresno County, officials said.

The pilot’s aircraft crashed about 160 miles south of San Francisco, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.

Hundreds of fires were burning across California on Wednesday, including 23 major fires or groups of fires that Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed on “extraordinary weather” and “all of these lightning strikes.” He said the state has recorded nearly 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours and knows of 367 fires.

Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes into smoky air as crews worked in blistering heat to beat back the wildfires.

The pilot, whose name has not been released, was killed Wednesday at around 8:45 a.m. when his helicopter crashed about an hour from New Coalinga Municipal Airport. He was the only person aboard the aircraft, which was one of six fighting the Fresno County fire.

He was working with Guardian Helicopters, based in Fillmore, which had a contract with Cal Fire to provide emergency services as needed, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Robert Satz, a pilot and safety manager at the company, said he received word about the crash around 10:30 a.m. He said he had no further details and declined to identify the pilot.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s search and rescue team was summoned shortly after 11 a.m. to recover the body of the pilot.

“They’re trying to methodically and safely get them in and hopefully not get exposed to the fire,” department spokesman Tony Botti said.

Officials told the Los Angeles Times that the helicopter crash sparked a small brush fire that grew to roughly 50 acres and spread toward the Hills fire.

“We are experiencing fires the likes of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” Newsom said at a press briefing Wednesday, noting that he had requested out-of-state help to tackle the fires.

At least 50 homes and other structures were destroyed by the fires, and another 50 properties were damaged, according to CalFire.

LNU Lightning Complex Fire Burns In Napa County
A firefighter sprays retardant on a utility pole as the LNU Lightning Complex fire burns in Fairfield, California, on Aug. 19, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Officials said four people have suffered burns, however it is not yet clear how severe their injuries are.

An investigation into the crash is being carried out by the National Transportation Safety Board and Cal Fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.