Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) A search is underway after an aerial firefighting plane crashed just after noon Wednesday on Hauser Reservoir near Spokane Bay while fighting the Horse Gulch Fire, which is burning just north of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the county sheriff confirmed.

The sheriff and Federal Aviation Administration said only the pilot was on board at the time of the crash. The pilot’s condition was unknown and a search had started Wednesday afternoon.

The crash happened around 12:10 p.m., according to Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, the FAA and two witnesses who called 911 to report the crash on the southwestern side of Hauser Reservoir.

The plane that crashed was an Air Tractor AT-802, single-engine water-scooping aircraft, according to National Transportation Safety Board and FAA spokespersons. It was working for the U.S. Forest Service on a firefighting mission, Dutton and the NTSB said. Dutton did not release information on the status of the pilot early Wednesday afternoon.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue, Montana Highway Patrol and several volunteer fire departments responded to the call. Dutton said Gallatin County Search and Rescue and the sheriff’s office would be coming to the scene with divers. Teams are also planning to use robotic underwater cameras to photograph the scene.

Several search-and-rescue boats were seen heading to the scene of the crash and a crew was preparing for a water search when the Daily Montanan was at the staging area.

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

Lorrie Bernardi and her husband were watching several firefighting airplanes from their home on the west side of Hauser Reservoir when they saw the crash.

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

They used a telescope to look out into the bay where they confirmed the plane had wrecked. She and her husband were unsure exactly what caused the accident but said it appeared the plane crashed in the water.

Dutton said early Wednesday afternoon he could not release further details on the crash but would likely have more information available Wednesday evening.

Sarah Taylor Sulick, a spokesperson for the NTSB, said an investigator was expected to arrive at the scene Wednesday afternoon to start documenting the scene and examining the aircraft, which will be removed and evaluated at a secure site. 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 was 450 estimated acres in size and 0% contained as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and is burning on Helena National Forest land. The fire is currently listed as being human caused.

A Type 3 incident command took over the fire Wednesday morning. The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order just before 4 p.m. for the Cave Gulch area; the Horse Gulch area remains under pre-evacuation orders.

Dutton said earlier in the afternoon the sheriff’s office was closing trails and other access because people are going up to the area just to see the fire.

“That’s the biggest problem we’re having right now is people that are curious of what a fire looks like and they’re trying to get up close to get good pictures,” he said. “That is hampering the firefighting efforts.”