NTSB investigating fatal air tanker crash near Estes Park as Kruger Rock fire sees minimal growth overnight

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The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the fatal crash of a single-engine air tanker over the Kruger Rock fire in Larimer County on Tuesday evening.

The pilot, Marc Thor Olson, was reported to have crashed around 6:37 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. The crash site was found at 9:49 p.m. near the south end of Hermit Park, which is off U.S. 36 about five miles from the town of Estes Park.

Olson was a pilot for CO Fire Aviation, a Fort Morgan company that fights fires from the air. Olson served in the Army and Air Force for 32 years, and he had 42 years of flying experience, a statement from the company said. Olson had more than 8,000 flight hours, including 1,000 hours using night-vision goggles during combat and civilian air missions.

“While we are gravely aware of the inherent dangers of aerial firefighting and the questions that remain; we ask that family and friends be given distance and time to process and heal as we grieve this loss. Your prayers are appreciated during this difficult time,” the company’s statement said.

CO Fire Aviation said it is working with the various regulatory agencies involved in the investigation.

Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesperson, said an investigator was en route to the scene from Chicago. No other information on the crash was available.

Olson was the only occupant in the plane. The plane was an Air Tractor AT-802A that belonged to CO Fire Aviation Inc., a Fort Morgan company that assists in aerial firefighting, according to a Federal Aviation Administration Registry. The company took down its website overnight.

According to FlightAware.com, an online flight tracker, the airplane left Fort Morgan Municipal Airport at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and flew several circles over the fire area before landing at 4:38 p.m. at Northern Colorado Regional Airport. The plane left from that airport at 4:38 p.m. to return to the burn area and was last seen around 6:36 p.m. over Longmont, the website’s data shows.

Earlier on Tuesday, Marc Salinger, a reporter with 9News, interviewed the airplane’s crew before it took off to fight the fire. A pilot told the TV station that the flight would be the first time a fixed-wing plane outfitted with night-vision equipment would be deployed to fight a wildfire at night. The plane would be carrying a fire suppressant to dump on the flames, the pilot said.

NEW: CO Fire Aviation confirms the pilot killed in the air tanker crash last night was Marc Thor Olson. He told me most people called him Thor.

This is a picture I took of him last night as he was prepping his plane. The crash happened about an hour later #9News pic.twitter.com/uEOO4tbXwK

— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) November 17, 2021

 

The Kruger Rock fire started just before 7 a.m. Tuesday after high winds blew a tree onto a power line, causing it to arc and ignite dry vegetation, the sheriff’s office said. The fire quickly burned up a steep mountainside as the wind helped it spread.

More than 1,600 people were ordered to evacuate, and U.S. 36 between Lyons and Estes Park was closed as heavy smoke covered the highway. The sheriff’s office reopened the highway around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, and officials scaled back evacuations along U.S. 36.

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burned 140 acres and was 15% contained. The wildfire experienced very minimal growth overnight, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

No structures have been damaged, according to Larimer County’s Kruger Rock fire update website.

The Kruger Rock plane crash is third fatal air disaster related to firefighting in Estes Park.

During the 2002 Big Elk fire, two air tanker pilots — Rick Schwartz of Ulm, Montana, and Milt Stollack of Cathedral City, California — died on July 18 when their plane crashed while hauling slurry to pour on the fire, and helicopter pilot Gordon Knight died on July 30 when his Llama helicopter crashed.

Nighttime aerial firefighting is relatively new with helicopters first deploying to battle fires at night in Australia during the 2019-2020 season, according to a March 2020 article in Aerial Fire magazine.

CO Fire Aviation, which was founded by Chris Doyle and Kyle Scott, tested night aerial firefighting in 2018 with the Oregon Department of Forestry after shelving the idea in 2010 because there was a lack of pilots with experience flying low altitude operations while using night-vision goggles, according to the article.

Olson led the company’s night-vision operations and designed training and selected equipment for the company.

After several test runs, the company’s pilots reported that fighting fires from above while wearing night-vision goggles helped them see the fires’ hotspots even better than in daylight. And Olson told Aerial Fire that firefighters on the ground wore special headlamps and that he could see them clearly from the air.

The Air Tractor airplanes flown by CO Fire Aviation typically are used as crop dusters but can be outfitted to fight fires, according to the company’s website. The AT-802A model flown by Olson on Tuesday night has a payload of 9,249 pounds and an 800-gallon tank for hauling liquids, making it one of the biggest agriculture aircraft in the world.