- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) - The 22 air tankers that make up the backbone of California’s state firefighting fleet have been grounded after one of them crashed, killing a pilot who was taking on a wildfire in Yosemite National Park.

The department had helicopters, guide planes and aircraft from other agencies to take on the blaze at Yosemite and others in the state, but the S-2T tankers that were grounded indefinitely Wednesday can carry 1,200 gallons apiece of fire retardant and are considered an essential resource for dealing with wildfires before they spiral out of control.

“These are our initial attack aircraft,” department spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.

It was not clear how long CalFire’s grounding of the S-2T aircraft will last, said CalFire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith.

“We call it the safety stand down and make sure we check on the safety of our pilots as well as our aircraft,” she said.

A National Park Service helicopter and air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service were filling the gap and assisting firefighters tackling the blaze that prompted the evacuation of 60 homes in the community of Foresta and had burned 252 acres, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

The crash occurred on Tuesday as four CalFire aircraft, including three tankers, were fighting the blaze as it climbed a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River, Tolmachoff said.

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

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.

Highway 140 will be closed indefinitely because of rocks rolling onto the roadway and as the crash is investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.

Officials said the weather at the time of the crash was clear and winds were calm.

Department spokesman Daniel Berlant said he was not aware of any radio distress calls from the pilot or any radio traffic from other pilots indicating problems with the weather or with the downed aircraft.

____

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

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