Three killed in crash of firefighting copter

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. – A twin-engine firefighting helicopter assigned to the largest wildfire in Montana crashed in a brushy ravine on a ranch Friday, killing all three crewmen.

The chopper assigned to the 25,500-acre Fridley fire crashed at about 8 a.m. PDT in the Emigrant Peak area between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park, fire and Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

Later in the day, a wildfire some 340 miles north swept into Glacier National Park, Montana’s crown jewel.

The crash killed pilot Rich Hernandez, 37, who was from Lake Tahoe area on the Nevada-California border; co-pilot Santi Arovitx, 28, from Hillsboro, Ore.; and crew chief Kip Krigbaum, 45, of Emmett, Idaho.

The names were released by Columbia Helicopters Inc., the Oregon owner of the helicopter. The crew had been fighting fires since April, said Michael Fahey, a Columbia spokesman.

The helicopter went down during a routine maintenance flight to check its condition, Columbia spokesman Jon Lazzaretti said from Aurora, Ore., the Portland suburb where the company is based.

Although the helicopter was not actively fighting the Fridley fire at the time of the crash, an 1,100-gallon bucket used to drop water on the fire was attached, Lazzaretti said.

Wreckage was scattered widely around the crash site along Emigrant Creek, about five miles east of the Fridley fire. A small fire started by the crash was extinguished quickly, said Warren Bielenberg, information officer for the Fridley fire.

The Vertol 107, with a 44-foot fuselage and a rotor at each end, was among the largest of the 15 helicopters assigned to the blaze. The chopper was a Boeing model manufactured by Kawasaki under license.

In northwestern Montana, afternoon wind ushered the Moose fire across the North Fork of the Flathead River and into Glacier National Park. The fire was burning on the park’s Huckleberry Mountain, about 15 miles north of Columbia Falls.

A leap by a fireball advanced the blaze into the park, said Wayne Johnson, a fire information officer. The estimated size of the Moose fire rose to 22,000 acres, up from 17,000 earlier in the day, Johnson said.

“It’s kicking butt,” fire spokesman Bob McKinney said. “That’s all you can say right now.”

The Fridley and Moose fires were among four major wildfires in the state Friday.

Nationally, some 19,000 firefighters faced 22 major fires Friday, burning on more than 222,000 acres. However, the National Interagency Fire Center said containment was near on several major fires. Both the California fire that once threatened the small mining town of Weaverville and the huge 74,000-acre Virginia lakes complex of fires in Washington state were reported at 90 percent containment early Friday.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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