LOS ANGELES (AP) — The helicopter pilot who died fighting one of hundreds of wildfires raging across California was making water drops over hilly, rugged terrain when his aircraft suddenly plunged to the ground, leaving behind a grieving family as authorities begin a painstaking effort to try to determine what caused the tragedy.
Mike Fournier died Wednesday morning when his bright red Bell UH-1H copter suddenly crashed into a hillside as he was helping battle a 1,500-acre fire 10 miles south of the small Central Valley town of Coalinga. The blaze, named the Hills Fire, was only 35 percent contained Thursday.
The 52-year-old pilot, who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Cucamonga with his wife and two daughters, had once been a high school coach but gave that up some years back to pursue his passion — flying.
He worked for a private Southern California company that contracts with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other agencies to provide firefighting aircraft and other services.
“He was so safe, and he always made sure anytime he left, he made sure and kissed us, hugged us and he told us he loved us,” his grief-stricken wife, Leanne, tearfully told KNBC News. “He was an amazing, amazing man, and I’m so proud to be his wife.”
She did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press on Thursday. A GoFundMe page she set up in her husband’s name had raised more than $40,000 in its first 17 hours. Pledges ranged from small amounts to as much as $1,000.
Several contributors said they knew and respected Fournier as both a friend and a dedicated pilot.
“It’s not going to be the same without him,” his 16-year-old daughter, Riley, told KNBC through sobs. “He changed so many people’s lives for the best, and people are going to miss him so much.”
Fournier’s copter went down in a remote, hilly, smoke-filled area that took a Fresno County Sheriff’s Department search and rescue team nearly four hours to reach.
Fourteen team members in five Jeeps traveled miles through soft dirt under smoke-filled skies, finally abandoning the vehicles to walk the final several hundred yards to the crash site, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said Thursday.
There, they carefully wrapped the body in an American flag and carried it to one of the vehicles.
“We brought that just as a sign of respect,” Botti said of the flag. “We’re obviously very glad that we were able to provide this closure to the family and able to recover their loved one in a timely manner. It’s a tough time, obviously.”
Fournier was working with Fillmore-based Guardian Helicopters, which has a contract with the state fire agency to provide emergency services, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Keliher told the AP on Thursday she will be the crash’s lead investigator and hopes to have a tentative report posted on her agency’s website in about 10 days.