California grounds air tankers after deadly crash - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

California grounds air tankers after deadly crash

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Yosemite National Park Rangers transfer the body of a Cal Fire pilot who was killed in an airplane crash in Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (AP) Yosemite National Park Rangers transfer the body of a Cal Fire pilot who was killed in an airplane crash in Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (AP)
In this photo provided by Donald Talend, smoke rises from a plane crash Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, near Chinquapin, Calif. (AP Photo/Donald Talend) In this photo provided by Donald Talend, smoke rises from a plane crash Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, near Chinquapin, Calif. (AP Photo/Donald Talend)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's fleet of air tankers was temporarily grounded Wednesday after one of the planes crashed while battling a wildfire in Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot.

The grounding left the park service with a single contract helicopter to assist firefighters tackling the blaze that had grown overnight to 210 acres and prompted the evacuation of 60 homes in Foresta on the western boundary of the park.

However, the community was not in imminent danger and was benefiting from containment lines created during a previous fire, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

There was no containment on the current Yosemite fire that forced the closing of the major western entrance to the heart of the park.

It was not clear how long CalFire's grounding of the S-2T aircraft will last as the agency checks the safety of its aircraft and pilots, CalFire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith said.

Four California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection aircraft had been fighting the fire on Tuesday, including three air tankers dropping retardant as the fire climbed a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River, department spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.

One of the planes hit the canyon wall and disintegrated, spilling pieces of the twin-engine aircraft onto State Highway 140, which remained closed Wednesday.

The body of pilot Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt was recovered Wednesday. It was draped with a flag and accompanied by an honor guard as it was turned over to CalFire officials.

Hunt, 62, of San Jose was a 13-year veteran pilot of DynCorp International and flew the air tanker under a contract with the state.

"We know wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, but Craig made the ultimate sacrifice," CalFire Director Ken Pimlott said in a statement.

Gov. Jerry Brown added his condolences in a statement, while ordering that the Capitol flag be flown at half-staff.

Michael Sansbury, deputy chief ranger at Yosemite National Park, said several search units converged at the crash scene that was almost a quarter-mile long. The recovery was difficult because of the active fire, he said at a news conference.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the crash. Officials said the weather at the time was clear and the winds were calm.

Tolmachoff said it was unclear if smoke from the fire or isolated updrafts or downdrafts created by the canyon walls may have played a part in the crash.

"That's a huge part of the question that the investigators are going to be looking at," she said.

DynCorp International provides pilots for all CalFire planes and maintenance for the department's aircraft.

The precautionary stand-down of the tanker fleet affects 22 S-2T air tankers, Smith said. It came in the midst of a fire season that has been extended by drought and unseasonably hot, dry weather.

Department helicopters were available to help fight wildfires, she said, as is a DC-10 on standby and capable of dropping large amounts of chemical fire retardant. The agency can also call on aircraft under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies, or call out specially equipped California National Guard helicopters and air tankers.

"They are available and ready if needed," Smith said.

Cobb said the park service had its own contract for the helicopter being used to fight the Yosemite fire.

"We definitely still have enough resources to effectively fight the fire," Cobb said.

Smith said her agency had been assisting the Forest Service on three other fires burning in Northern California.

The last time the S-2Ts were grounded was in 2001, when two of the aircraft collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, she said.

Pilots of a different type of aircraft were grounded for the same reason in 2006, when a fire battalion chief and a pilot were killed while observing a fire in a two-seat plane in Tulare County, she said.

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Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this report from San Francisco.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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