Blaire Miller

(Daily Montanan) A 45-year-old pilot was killed Wednesday in a firefighting plane crash just after noon 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.

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

The crash happened around 12:10 p.m., according to 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 said at a news conference at 5 p.m. that three single-engine air tankers had been scooping water to drop onto the fire. The first plane that went through was successful in its run, but the second plane hit the bank and fell apart in the water.

Several people attempted to rescue the pilot but were unsuccessful, Dutton said. With help from Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue and a dive team from Gallatin County Search and Rescue, the pilot’s body had been recovered by 5 p.m., according to Dutton.

“Right now, our condolences go out to that family. 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 to the call.

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 earlier in the afternoon.

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.

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 600 estimated acres in size and 0% contained as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, a Forest supervisor said at the news conference, and is burning on Helena National Forest land.

A Type 3 incident command team is being briefed Wednesday afternoon and will take over command of 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, that evacuation order had expanded to include all homes between Cave Gulch and Magpie Gulch, said Lewis and Clark County Undersheriff Brent Colbert.

Emily Platt, the forest supervisor for the Helena National Forest, said the fire had changed directions Wednesday afternoon and was moving south due to a wind shift, leading to the expanded evacuations. She said the next several days are expected to continue to be hot, dry and windy, so the fire is likely to stay active.

Kenny Spint, the assistant fire management officer for the Helena district, said there were about 100 resources, including firefighters and airplanes, currently working on the fire. Part of it is burning in an old burn scar through debris killed by the previous fire.

Spint and Platt said the main focus is to protect private homes and lands from burning.

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.”

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

“Our first responders and wildland firefighters put their lives on the line to quickly respond to threats and protect our communities. It’s a true act of bravery to run toward a fire. We join all Montanans and Idahoans in praying for the fallen hero’s family and friends during this tragic time,” they said.