An air tanker fighting a wildfire near Yosemite National Park crashed Tuesday, Oct. 7, about 4:30 p.m. It was reported that the plane went down within a mile of the park’s west entrance (Highway 140).
The crash occurred in steep, rugged terrain in the Merced River canyon. Witnesses report seeing the plane hit the canyon wall followed by an explosion.
The body of the pilot was recovered Wednesday, Oct. 8. Cal Fire identified the victim as Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt, 62, of San Jose.
Hunt was an experienced pilot, having flown “hundreds and hundreds” of fires, a Cal Fire spokesperson said, underscoring the danger of the profession. He was a 13-year employee of DynCorp, which provides the pilots for Cal Fire’s fixed-wing aircraft.
The airplane was a 2001 S-2T air tanker with twin turbine engines. It is capable of carrying 1,200 gallons of fire retardant.
Investigators from the National Traffic Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the scene early Wednesday. All Cal Fire planes were grounded as a result of the crash, which is protocol.
The fire, dubbed the Dog Rock Fire, started about 3 p.m. Tuesday near Highway 140, a main entrance to Yosemite. As of Thursday, it was over 210 acres in size and 10 percent contained. Evacuation orders remained in effect for the community of Foresta, and Highway 140 (Arch Rock entrance) into the park was closed.
Yosemite is open but as of Thursday morning (Oct. 9), there was no electricity in the Valley.
The Yosemite area has been plagued with wildfires the past few months. The lightning-caused Meadow Fire burned more than 7,400 acres in late August and early September and caused evacuations of Half Dome hikers. Nearly 5,000 acres burned near Old El Portal and Foresta in late July/early August.
The last time a Cal Fire air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots.
In 2006, Rob Stone, a Cal Fire battalion chief, and a pilot were killed in the Tulare County mountains while in a Cal Fire spotter plane and relaying fire information to ground crews. Rob was raised in Three Rivers and his parents and other family members still reside here.