RENO, Nev. — A firefighting aircraft crashed into rugged terrain near the Utah-Nevada border as it dropped retardant on a 5,000-acre wildfire, killing the two Idaho men on board.
The air tanker went down Sunday afternoon in the Hamblin Valley area of western Utah, Bureau of Land Management officials said. A helicopter crew saw the crash and told ground crews that "it didn't look good," Iron County sheriff's Detective Sgt. Jody Edwards in Utah told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The two pilots were fighting the fire, which was sparked Friday by lightning in eastern Nevada. It has spread into Utah, though most of the blaze remained in Nevada, about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Ground and air crews held the fire back from the wreckage, giving sheriff's deputies enough time to drive and hike to the site and confirm that the pilots had died, Edwards said.
The fire later overwhelmed the crash site, Edwards said. A medical examiner was helping authorities recover the bodies Sunday night.
The sheriff's office identified the pilots as Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho. They were flying a P-2V air tanker owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont.
There was no immediate word on what caused the crash.
The fire was burning in steep, rugged woodlands, sagebrush and grass. Crews were pulled off the fire lines after the crash.
"To have them working on the fire lines after this is more than we would like to ask firefighters," said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "It's obviously a horrifying and tragic event."
A second air tanker, also a P-2V, malfunctioned Sunday afternoon and was unable to lower all of its landing gear. That crew was helping at a wildfire near the Minden-Tahoe Airport, which is about 50 miles south of Reno.
That plane remained in the air for another 90 minutes to burn off fuel before making an emergency landing on a runway, Douglas County sheriff's spokesman Jim Halsey said. The aircraft sustained significant damage after it slid off the runway, but both crew members escaped injury, he said.
The incidents come several months after a group of Western senators questioned whether the U.S. Forest Service was moving quickly enough to build up and replace the fleet of aging planes that drop fire retardant on wildfires.
The federal agency hires a mix of large and small airplanes and helicopters each year to fight wildfires. They are generally privately owned and work under contract.
Retardant dropped from planes is typically used to bolster a line cut by firefighters on the edge of a fire, and water dropped from helicopters is usually used to cool hotspots within a fire.
The current fleet is made up of Lockheed P-2Vs, anti-submarine patrol planes dating to the 1950s that have been modified with jets to supplement the piston engines. More than half are due to retire in 10 years.
The number of large aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004, when the forest service grounded 33 air tankers after a number of high-profile crashes. In March, senators from Oregon, New Mexico, Alaska and California asked the Government Accountability Office to evaluate whether the service had done a good job of analyzing the types and numbers of aircraft needed, the cheapest way to get them, new technologies and where the planes will be based.