The pilot of a helicopter working a wildland fire in Interior Alaska was killed in a crash Sunday evening.
The 1960 Bell 204B “Huey” crashed at the Anderson Airport’s helipad, Alaska State Troopers said. Pilot 56-year-old Douglas Ritchie of Wasilla died in the crash, troopers said. No one else was in the helicopter.
Ritchie’s death was the first wildland firefighting fatality in Alaska in more than 20 years.
The helicopter was taking off on a sling-load operation to bring equipment to the fire when the crash happened around 7:30 p.m., said Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska office. The helicopter caught fire after the crash.
The helicopter was operated by Northern Pioneer Helicopters and had been contracted by the Department of Natural Resources to help with wildland firefighting, troopers said.
Ritchie was one of just over 200 people assigned to the Clear Fire that by Sunday was prompting increasing numbers of evacuations near Anderson. The fire, started by lightning last week, measured at more than 9,500 acres. Many firefighting operations paused Sunday night after the crash, said Sam Harrel, an information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry.
“We still needed firefighters in the field, we still needed dispatch and everybody to be in place should something else occur, we still needed to have other helicopters ready and on standby should they need to go, but we did take a pause there,” Harrel said. “We did take a moment and it’s just like any of us would, just take a safety moment and let’s think about what we’re doing, the reason we’re here doing it and how can we continue to do it safely?”
It’s too early to tell what may have caused the crash, Johnson said. Two NTSB investigators and a helicopter engineering specialist were headed to the scene Monday.
Ritchie’s remains will be autopsied, troopers said. He is the first wildland firefighter to die in Alaska in 22 years. Smoke jumper David Liston died during a training exercise in 2000.
Four people were injured in 2020 when a plane transporting wildland firefighters crashed into a lake near Aniak. The wrong type of fuel had been put into the plane before takeoff.
Ritchie was involved in previous firefighting operations and was a longtime pilot in Alaska, Harrel said. He was the lead pilot at Northern Pioneer Helicopters, where he had worked for 12 years, according to the company’s website.
“The wildfire community, firefighters and aviators, we’re a pretty close-knit community and this hits us all hard,” Harrel said. “But we also realized what the mission is and the job that we need to focus on and get done.”
Crews were continuing to work on more than 20 fires burning Monday across the state. Hot, dry and windy conditions forecast this week are expected to increase fire danger.