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Pilot dies after firefighting plane crashes during Horse Gulch fire near Helena • Daily Montanan

A 45-year-old pilot was killed Wednesday when a firefighting plane crashed just after noon at Hauser Reservoir near Spokane Bay while battling the Horse Gulch Fire that was raging north of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the county sheriff confirmed.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton confirmed just after 5 p.m. that the pilot, a 45-year-old woman from another country who was flying for an Idaho-based company, died in the crash. He and the Federal Aviation Administration said earlier this afternoon that only the pilot was on board at the time of the crash. Officials were trying to contact the woman’s family before releasing her name.

The crash occurred at about 12:10 p.m., according to Dutton, the FAA and two witnesses who called 911 to report the accident on the southwest shore of Hauser Reservoir.

The plane that crashed was an Air Tractor AT-802, a single-engine water-collection aircraft, according to National Transportation Safety Board and FAA spokesmen. It was operating for the U.S. Forest Service on a wildfire-fighting mission, Dutton and the NTSB said.

Dutton told a 5 p.m. news conference that three single-engine firefighting planes were collecting water to drop on the blaze. The first plane to fly over was successful, but the second struck the bank and broke up in the water.

Several people tried to save the pilot, but were unsuccessful, Dutton said. With the help of Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue and a dive team from Gallatin County Search and Rescue, the pilot’s body was recovered by 5 p.m., Dutton said.

“Our condolences go out to the family right now. It’s sad,” Dutton said.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue, Montana Highway Patrol and several volunteer fire departments responded.

When a Daily Montanan reporter arrived at the scene in the early afternoon, several search and rescue boats were seen heading to the crash site and the crew was preparing to search the water.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the crash along with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Forest Service, Dutton said. The NTSB will lead the investigation, according to FAA spokeswoman Jillian Angeline.

Lorrie Bernardi and her husband were watching several firefighting planes from their home on the western shore of Hauser Reservoir when they suddenly saw the crash.

“It started filling up and then all of a sudden, I don’t know if it hit a wave or what… but we just saw a big puff of smoke,” she said.

They used a telescope to look out over the bay, where they confirmed the plane had crashed. She and her husband weren’t sure exactly what caused the accident, but they said it looked like the plane had crashed into the water.

Sarah Taylor Sulick, an NTSB spokeswoman, said an investigator is expected to arrive at the scene Wednesday afternoon to begin documenting the scene and examining the plane, which will be removed and evaluated at a secure location. A preliminary report on the crash will be issued within 30 days.

The Horse Gulch fire started Tuesday afternoon about 5 miles south of York and 2 miles north of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It had an estimated size of 600 acres and was 0% contained as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, a forest superintendent said at a news conference, and is burning in the Helena National Forest.

The Horse Gulch Fire seen from the east side of Helena just before 5 p.m. on July 10, 2024. By then, it had spread to an estimated 600 acres. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

A Type 3 Incident Command Team is being debriefed Wednesday afternoon and will take over the fire. The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order just before 4 p.m. for the Cave Gulch area. By the 5 p.m. news conference, the evacuation order had been expanded to include all homes between Cave Gulch and Magpie Gulch, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy Brent Colbert said.

Emily Platt, a forest supervisor with the Helena National Forest, said the fire changed direction Wednesday afternoon and is moving south due to a change in wind direction, which has led to the expanded evacuation. She said the next few days are expected to remain hot, dry and windy, so the fire is likely to remain active.

Kenny Spint, deputy fire management officer for Helena County, said about 100 resources, including firefighters and aircraft, are currently working the blaze, some of which are burning in an old fire scar filled with debris from a previous fire.

Spint and Platt said the most important goal is to protect homes and private properties from fire.

Dutton said the sheriff’s office closed trails and other access roads that afternoon because people were driving to the area just to see the fire.

“That’s the biggest problem we have right now, people who are curious about what the fire looks like and are trying to get closer to get good pictures,” he said. “That makes it harder to put out the fire.”

In a joint statement Wednesday evening, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and Idaho Gov. Brad Little said they were “deeply saddened” to hear of the pilot’s death.

“Our wildland first responders and firefighters are putting their lives on the line to respond quickly and protect our communities. It is a true act of courage to rush into a wildfire. We join all Montana and Idahoans in praying for the family and friends of this fallen hero during this tragic time,” they said.

Emergency crews responded to a plane crash at Hauser Reservoir around noon on July 10, 2024, after a firefighting plane crashed into the lake. (Photo: Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The Horse Gulch Fire near Canyon Ferry Reservoir on the afternoon of July 9, 2024. ((Photo courtesy of InciWeb)