Although fire crews are making “significant progress,” the Dog Rock Fire is still burning at only 10 percent containment in Yosemite National Park, forcing home evacuations and highway closures. The fire has already claimed one life, that of an air tanker pilot who died when his Grumman S2 Tracker plane crashed into a canyon wall on Tuesday while dropping fire retardant. The fire began about 2:30 Tuesday afternoon near Dog Rock, on El Portal road between the Arch Rock Entrance Station and Yosemite View Lodge. The cause is still unknown.
The community of Foresta is under an evacuation order, and 60 homes have been vacated, mostly privately owned vacation rental properties. The fire has burned approximately 250 acres. Aircraft and fire crews are on the scene, although some tanker planes have been grounded due to the loss of 62-year-old Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, the pilot killed in the air tanker crash.
Hunt was a seasoned aviator with more than a decade of experience flying firefighting missions in California. His plane lost contact about two hours after the fire started on Tuesday. Search and rescue teams located his body that night about a half mile from Highway 140. The debris from the crash reached as far as the highway, which was already closed to traffic due to the fire. Hunt flew for a Cal Fire contractor, DynCorp International, which, as a safety precaution, has grounded its 22 other S2 Trackers to allow Hunt’s colleagues time to grieve. Federal agency firefighting planes will drop retardant on the blaze in the meantime.
Hunt’s is the first aircraft-related death for Cal Fire since 2006. The plane that went down Tuesday is the type used when fire retardant needs to be dropped quickly on an advancing blaze. It can travel over 300 mph and hauls up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. The DynCorp planes are all 50 to 60 years old, but are well-maintained, rebuilt every winter. The National Park Service has deployed four similar aircraft against the fire.
An honor guard removed Hunt’s body Wednesday morning, after State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection personnel stayed with it until daylight. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
The Dog Rock fire is the second blaze this year to threaten the Yosemite community of Foresta. The El Portal fire that started July 26 burned 4,689 acres and resulted in the loss of two homes.
Power remains out in the Yosemite Valley, with the outage expected to continue another 24-48 hours. The Park Service shut down the power due to the air tanker crash’s location under power lines.
Yosemite National Park covers nearly 1,200 square miles, and is well-known for its waterfalls. Half Dome is a Yosemite icon and challenges many hikers, some of whom had to be rescued in September due to the El Portal fire, which flared up suddenly and cut off access trails.
Yosemite has remained open despite the Dog Rock fire, with access to the park available through Highway 120 and Highway 41, which are unaffected by the burn. Campgrounds, hotels and other visitor services are open, although many of the visitor facilities are operating off generators.
By Beth A. Balen