FORT APACHE, Ariz. - A Helitack crew and pilot based at the BIA Fort Apache Agency crashed while responding to a smoke report of a possible wildland fire on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
The Bell 206L3 helicopter spiraled down into rugged terrain west of Whiteriver on July 26. Killed in the crash were Jesse Pearce, a contract pilot of Peoria, Ariz., and Helitack crew member, Randall Bonito Jr., 32, a White Mountain Apache tribal member of Whiteriver.
Two other Helitack crew members survived. Kristy Johnson, 30, of Cibecue and Floyd Walker, 37, of Whiteriver were extracted from the crash and airlifted to St. Joseph's Medical Hospital in Phoenix. Both are recovering from injuries, such as broken bones and severe bruises. They are expected to make a full recovery.
According to Margo Whitt, information officer for the incident, an investigation of the crash is under way by the National Transportation Safety Board. At press time, the cause crash was not yet identified or reported.
There are five Helitack crews, comprised of a squad of three wildland firefighters with specialized flight training that are based at the Agency.
The Helitack program began in the late 1960s after helicopters were primarily used to locate initial fire outbreaks and deliver a steady stream of water on it. Over the years, the program evolved to include fire personnel who provide rapid response to small wildland fires or check smoke reports from the various lookouts within the area. These elite fire crews are known as Helitack (devised from Helicopter Attack), due to their immediate approach style of attacking wildland fires from the air.
Helitack crews are a necessity for the reservation that spreads 1.6 million acres. Within the encompassing acreage lies a tribal-based economic of prime forest timber in which the tribe and BIA aggressively maintain with massive fuel treatments to keep it healthy. Demand for Helitack crews is high due to their ability to maneuver into steep mountains and canyons.
As George Leech, the Agency's Fire Management Officer explains, "they get into inaccessible areas where other ground crews can't get into ? and they are a well-tightened organization."
As first responders, Helitack crews size up the fire's acreage, terrain and behavior. Then, they report their findings to dispatch and request for further assistance or simply contain the fire with a handline by themselves. Helitack conducts Initial Attack (IA) until ground forces relieve them, which can be anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
Due to the dangers of battling fires and the increased risk of traveling on a helicopter, Helitack crew members continue to check equipment, review crew briefings, and stress safety.
"Our record has been quite good," said Leech, emphasizing few fatalities of fire personnel have occurred while on fire assignments in Idaho and Montana, but never on the homefront as this fire season has shown. He is quickly reminded of a sudden incident that took the Agency and Tribe by surprise.
Last month, Rick Lupe, a BIA Fuels Specialist, died from burns he received during a prescribed fire operation. Now, the Agency will again prepare to escort another fallen firefighter in an American flag-draped coffin.
"It's gonna be tough," sighed Leech.
After a fatal accident, a stress management team is called upon to counsel employees, firefighters, and families. Counseling is on a voluntary basis for fire personnel.
The Fort Apache Helitack crews are considered to be a national resource, reporting to wildland fire incidents nationwide. Recently, the Helitack crew worked on the Kinishba Fire and provided assistance at the Pocorn fire incident on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
The 100 Club, a non-profit nationwide organization, has established accounts for Bonito and Pearce through the Arizona Federal Credit Union. The club offers immediate financial assistance to the families of public officers injured or killed in the line of duty.
To make an online donation, go to www.azfcu.org or mail your donation to 100 Club, 5151 N. 19 Ave., Suite 204, Phoenix, AZ 85015. Accounts for both are as follows: Bonito - account No. 468905; and Pearce - account No. 468906.
A memorial service for Bonito was held at Memorial Hall in downtown Whiteriver on August 2. Funeral arrangements for Pearce are pending.
Bonito is survived by his wife and two sons. Pearce precedes his wife in death and is survived by two daughters.