(Adds crash details; background on previous fire deaths)
By Jennifer Dobner and Zelie Pollon
June 4 Officials opened an investigation on
Monday of an airplane tanker crash in Utah that caused the
year's first two deaths among crews fighting U.S. wildfires,
while hundreds of evacuees from a New Mexico blaze that is the
nation's biggest this season returned home.
The firefighting plane went down on Sunday afternoon on a
forested mountainside in the Hamlin Valley area of southwestern
Utah while on a mission to drop chemical fire retardant on an
8,000-acre (3,237-hectare) blaze along the Nevada-Utah border.
Firefighters who accompanied a search team to the crash site
hours later battled flames roaring 100 feet (30 metres) in the
air as sheriff's deputies extricated the bodies from the
wreckage and collected crash evidence, said Detective Sergeant
Jody Edwards of the Iron County Sheriff's Office.
The charred ground at site was so hot that "the soles of our
investigators' boots were melting, and there were places where
the aluminum from the plane had literally turned to liquid and
was running downhill," Edwards told Reuters.
Debris was scattered across the mountainside, with large
pieces of wreckage about 500 yards (457 metres) from the last
spot where the plane appears to have dropped retardant, he said.
A National Transportation Safety Board team was called in to
investigate the crash.
Based on damage to the trees and marks left in the ground,
sheriff's deputies on the scene surmised that the plane may have
clipped some trees with its left wing on a low pass toward the
mountain, sending the aircraft into a cartwheel, Edwards said.
The dead were identified as pilot Todd Tompkins, 48, and his
co-pilot, Ronnie Chambless, 40, both of Boise, Idaho. The two
men were employees of a Montana-based aviation company that
supplied the plane, a Lockheed Martin P2V, and crew under
contract with the U.S. Forest Service for firefighting.
Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for National Interagency Fire
Center in Boise, said Tompkins and Chambless were the first
firefighting personnel to die in fires that have consumed more
than 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometres) of forest,
brush and grasslands nationwide so far this year, most of it in
But they were not the only wildfire casualties of 2012.
Three civilians - an elderly couple and another woman - died in
a blaze triggered by embers from a prescribed burn west of
Denver in late March.
Still, the year-to-date tally of burned acreage across the
country is running about 40 percent below average for the same
six-month period over the past decade, said Ken Frederick, a
spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
As of Monday, firefighters were battling a total of 11
large, uncontained blazes, mostly in seven Western states - New
Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.
CALMER WINDS IN RECENT DAYS
The biggest by far is the so-called Whitewater-Baldy Complex
fire, which was ignited by lightning on May 16 in the rugged
high country of New Mexico's Gila National Forest and has now
scorched more territory than any other recorded blaze in the
state's history, over 255,000 acres (103,195 hectares).
The blaze destroyed a dozen privately owned cabins at the
height of its rampage nearly two weeks ago as gale-force winds
fanned flames from treetop to treetop.
But calmer winds in recent days have allowed fire crews to
gain an upper hand. By Monday, they had carved containment lines
around 18 percent of the fire's perimeter and were depriving
advancing flames of fresh fuel by clearing smaller trees and
brush that has yet to burn.
"The wind has really been in our favor the past couple of
days," Fire Information Officer Tara Ross said. "It's still warm
and it's still dry, but with low winds we can ... lower the
intensity of the burn."
Evacuation orders were lifted on Monday for about 200 homes
in and around the historic mining town of Mogollon, but about 60
cabins in the nearby community of Willow Creek, where 12 cabins
and 13 outbuildings were lost on May 23, remained off-limits.
Ross said containment work was concentrated along the fire's
western flank to protect the community of Glenwood and its
population of about 300 people. Teams on horseback scouted areas
along the eastern edge of the blaze, looking for ideal places to
create new fire breaks there, she said.
Lightning strikes remained a problem, however, blamed for
sparking three new fires in New Mexico on Sunday. Lightning was
also blamed for the White Rock Fire that erupted on Friday in
southeastern Nevada near the town of Caliente and later burned
into Utah. It was that fire which claimed the lives of the two
air tanker pilots.
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner from Salt Lake City and Zelie
Pollon from Santa Fe; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by
Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)