YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — Sparks from a vehicle caused a wildfire at the edge of Yosemite National Park that led to the death of a firefighting air-tanker pilot this week, officials said Thursday.
Fire investigators found that the blaze broke out Tuesday because of hot metal fragments from a vehicle creating sparks, Yosemite said in a statement.
Investigators had not determined what type of vehicle or what part may have caused the sparks, saying it “could be the result of several things such as trailer safety chains dragging on the pavement, vehicle brake parts generating a spark or other sources.”
They didn’t immediately say what evidence led them to the cause of the fire that had burned 245 acres and was 10 percent contained.
Within a few hours of the blaze breaking out Tuesday, a state fire air tanker crashed into a canyon wall, killing 62-year-old pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt of San Jose.
“My dad died a hero,” his daughter, Sarah Hunt Lauterbach, said in a statement released through the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “There was not a day that went by that I didn’t talk to my dad. He was my best friend.”
Calfire’s fleet of 22 tankers remained grounded while the cause of the crash was investigated.
Meanwhile, a series of wildfires along Interstate 80 about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento destroyed five homes and threatened hundreds more as fire crews fought to keep it from a canyon where dry brush could make it a far bigger problem, officials said.
Crews fighting those fires were relying on air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service and helicopters to drop fire retardant on the blaze, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Berlant said a decision to lift the safety stand-down on the department’s own 22 S-2T air tankers will depend in part on preliminary results from the investigation into the crash.
“Once we determine that there is no clear mechanical issue with the entire fleet, then we will feel more comfortable having them in the air,” Berlant said.
The fires were threatening 1,000 structures around the community of Applegate in Placer County, with many homes under mandatory evacuation orders.
Crews were focusing on protecting homes and keeping the fires out of the American River canyon, where another fire this year showed explosive growth, Berlant said.
It was not immediately clear what caused the fires, but at least two callers reported seeing several car tires burning along the eastbound shoulder of the interstate, California Highway Patrol officer Mike Martis said.
Dustin Andrews, a concrete fabricator from Sacramento, said he saw flames lapping at the roadside.
“We realized it was right up against the highway in four or five different areas,” he said. “It happened so fast, but over such a wide area.”
Also Thursday, a massive east of Sacramento known as the King Fire that burned more than 150 square miles, destroyed a dozen houses and drove thousands from their homes has finally been fully contained after a “grueling month” for firefighters, the Forest Service said in a statement.
At Yosemite, the National Transportation Safety Board had two investigators at the site of the crash on the western edge of the park.
They were examining parts of the aircraft that they could reach, though the wildfire was limiting access to other parts of what was described as a nearly quarter-mile-long debris field, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said.
By week’s end, the investigators planned to take the wreckage to a secure facility for more examination. They will then interview witnesses and examine radar data and radio communications.
Holloway said a final determination on the cause of the crash could take a year or more, but a preliminary report could be available next week.
Fire officials said the air tanker crashed into a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River.
Hunt’s body was recovered Wednesday. He had worked with CalFire for 13 years after serving as a U.S. Navy pilot from 1975-1984 and another 20 years in the Navy reserves.
Hunt piloted one of two air tankers flying out of CalFire’s base in Hollister, 150 miles south of Sacramento.
He had master’s degrees in business and biochemistry and taught chemistry at the University of Santa Cruz.
“He did math equations for fun. That’s what he did in his spare time,” recalled CalFire Battalion Chief Joshua Nettles, who is in charge of the Hollister base.
Since his death, community members have left flowers and notes of condolence at the base’s gate.
“Everybody here at the air attack base has been affected by this unexpected tragedy. We’re all working through this as a family,” Nettles said.