Same model helicopter suspected in two Alaska wildfires

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The same model helicopter that state officials believe started the 84,000-acre Fish Creek wildfire last year may be responsible for a smaller fire near Galena earlier this month.

The aircraft's operating manual warns that hot exhaust could ignite such blazes.

A Robinson R44 helicopter June 6 was picking up two people surveying land 5 miles north of Galena owned by Gana-A Yoo, an Alaska Native village corporation, according to two federal agencies.

A report by Alaska State Troopers said the helicopter's exhaust system ignited grass while the passengers were boarding.

''It was dry grass and it spread very quickly,'' said Andy Williams, Alaska Fire Service spokesman.

The pilot and the two surveyors tried to put out the fire but were unsuccessful. They had to hike several miles to a nearby road to get help, troopers said.

The fire destroyed the helicopter.

Two emergency fire crews limited the fire to 165 acres by the next day.

The helicopter was owned by Fairbanks-based Quicksilver Air Inc., owned by Richard and Sharon Swisher.

Sharon Swisher declined comment. Richard Swisher did not return a phone call from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Another Robinson R44 helicopter, owned by Pollux Aviation, ignited dry grass last year after dropping off workers clearing a right-of-way route for the Northern Intertie, according to a state report.

That fire became known as the Fish Creek fire and cost state and federal governments $2.9 million to extinguish.

The Robinson R44 pilot operating manual warns that the helicopter is capable of starting a grass fire.

''The exhaust is low to the ground and very hot: a grass fire may be ignited,'' the manual states.

Kurt Robinson, vice president of the Torrance, Calif.-based Robinson Helicopter Inc., said he was aware of a fire started by a Robinson R22, a two-seat version of the R44, which has four-seats.

''So we included it (the warning) in the owners manual,'' Robinson said. ''It's one of those things that seem obvious. The manual is supposed to be in an aircraft at all times and it describes the helicopter's limitation.''

Any pilot operating the aircraft is required to be aware of what you can and cannot do in the aircraft, he said.

There are 16 Robinson R44 helicopters registered in the state, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection, a branch of the Alaska State Troopers, owns three.

''We tell our people not to land in tall, dry grass,'' said Mel Nading, a trooper search-and-rescue pilot who trains pilots in the Robinson R44.

The Galena fire is being investigated by both the Bureau of Land Management and the National Transportation Safety Board.

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