Firefighters are mourning the loss of three air tanker crew members who were killed in a crash Monday evening after taking off from their base in Stead.
"There are lots of grieving people, grieving firefighters and the families of the crew members," Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Spokeswoman Marne Bonesteel said Tuesday.
The names of the victims are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Bonesteel said the Lockheed P2V fire tanker had dropped one load on the 204-acre Burnside fire in Hope Valley on Monday morning and had been called to a second fire burning in on the west slope of the Sierra in California.
She said the call was canceled right about the time the tanker crashed at 6:09 p.m. Monday.
City of Reno spokesman Steve Frady said Reno firefighters responded to a brush fire set by the crash, which was quickly extinguished. The debris field from the crash covered about 5 acres. The brush fire was contained to 1.5 acres.
"Airport authority officials told me it was fully loaded with fuel and fire retardant," he said. "Minden dispatch advised it had about 2,070 gallons of retardant."
Witnesses to the crash said a jet engine fire engulfed the wing of the tanker moments after takeoff, sending the plane rolling into the ground, said Tom Little, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Little said nothing indicates pilot error played a role in the crash, which brings to 27 the number of deaths in fatal crashes of firefighting air tankers in the U.S. since 1991.
"Two witnesses confirmed the fire was from the jet engine," Little told reporters at the airport north of Reno on Tuesday night.
Investigators recovered several large pieces of metal north of the runway that appear to have come from the burning engine, he said.
"It appears it had disintegrated and subs
equently left the aircraft. We know there was a fire on board the aircraft," Little said.
"We just are at a loss right now as to why, No. 1, the engine caught on fire, and No. 2, what caused the loss of control of the aircraft?" he said. "That is what the focus of the investigation will be over the next six to nine months."
Casey Meaden, who lives near the airport, said she was watching the plane take off when she noticed an engine was on fire.
"It didn't seem like he was getting much altitude," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It was a little while after it got into the air. I could see it was off the ground. I said, 'Oh, my God! That thing is on fire."'
Minden Air Chief Executive Officer Leonard Parker said he knew the pilot of the downed tanker.
"The guy flying the thing was a consummate professional, so it's hard to figure out what happened," he said. "The airplanes are up to the task, but often they fly so low to the ground that there's not a lot of time to recover."
The plane, owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., and built in 1962, was one of 12 the company had on contract with the Forest Service to fight fires.
It had made one flight over Burnside fire in Hope Valley, Calif., on Monday morning and then returned to the Stead airport, where it remained until the crash.
Firefighters expect to have a line completely around the that fire by 6 p.m. Friday.
The Burnside fire has been burning since Sunday afternoon, and forced the evacuation of Labor Day vacationers from resorts, campgrounds and homes in Hope Valley.
Evacuations were lifted on Monday morning and Sorensen's reopened at 10 a.m.
"The wind is in our favor," Sorensen's innkeeper John Brissenden told a Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter on Monday morning. "Because of the wonderful crews, at the moment we're allowed to reopen."
Bonesteel said much of the smoke is from the burning of heavy fuels inside the interior of the fire.
Firefighters are expecting warmer temperatures and a shift in the wind today.
Christie Kalkowski, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said there were no immediate plans to ground any planes in the aftermath of the crash in Stead.
"Those planes under contract will continue to fly as requested and needed," she said Tuesday.
Monday's crash marked at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune was in a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.
Neptune Aviation Chief Executive Officer Mark Timmons said those previous crashes were caused by pilot error.
It has been six years since Minden pilot Steve Wass died in June 2002 with two crew members fighting a fire near Walker, Calif. They were in a C-130 tanker crash, owned by Greybull, Wyo.-based Hawkins and Powers Aviation. Large air tankers were grounded for several years after that crash.