Deadly crash doesn’t mean firefighting at night is over

Nighttime aerial firefighting from a fixed wing plane is still a possibility in Colorado. Just not until after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concludes its likely year-long investigation into the crash on Tuesday in Estes Park.

Mark Thor Olson died on Tuesday night when his single engine air tanker crashed at the Kruger Rock Fire in Estes Park.

According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Olson reported turbulent winds over the fire and was going to make one more pass before returning to the airport in Loveland. He crashed moments later.

In May, the company that Olson worked for, CO Fire Aviation, demonstrated simulated air drops near a canyon in Larimer County.

9NEWS was there for that demonstration. So was Boulder County’s Fire Management Officer, Seth McKinney.

“I went into that demonstration with doubts. I’ve had previous experience with nighttime aviation, primarily helicopters, from working on fires in southern California, and wasn’t terribly impressed,” said McKinney. “The night vision, some of the concerns I had, had come a long ways.”

McKinney pointed to last year’s Calwood Fire in Boulder, as an area where nighttime air drops from an airplane could help protect homes.

“The niche use that I really saw was mostly down towards the wildland urban interface. Areas along Boulder, Boulder City Limits and Lyons. Those lower elevation fires, I think nighttime air tankers can still do some really good work,” said McKinney.

“The fixed wing, you’ve got forward speed and that’s it,” said Vince Welbaum, Aviation Unit Chief for Colorado’s Department of Fire Prevention and Control.

The state uses nighttime helicopter drops, but had not agreed to nighttime air tanker use.

“Number one, we don’t have the capacity for personnel to manage day and night operations. Number two, it’s still cutting edge technology for the fixed wing side of things,” said Welbaum.

Showing off the technology was one reason why CO Fire Aviation did the demonstration in May.

“We were actually looking into that as an option in the future, unfortunately with this incident, it has put us on a slow evaluation for the future,” said Welbaum.

“I certainly hope it’s not the end,” said McKinney.

The NTSB investigation into the cause of the crash will take a year or more.

The Oregon Department of Forestry contracts with CO Fire Aviation for daytime operations. The contract also allowed trial practice of nighttime air tanker drops. Future nighttime air tanker drops are now on hold in Oregon until the NTSB investigation is complete.

“What I always tell my firefighters coming up is some of our greatest successes will stem from our greatest failures,” said McKinney. “I’m really looking forward to a good investigation coming from this and seeing how we can learn from it.”

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