Murder charges filed against accused Calif. wildfire starter
HOPLAND, Calif. – A man accused of starting a campfire that burned out of control and led to the death of two air tanker pilots was charged with two counts of murder Tuesday.
Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman formally filed charges against Frank Brady, 50, of Redwood Valley, Calif. for his suspected role in starting a fire two pilots attempted to put out from the air when they clipped each other and fatally crashed.
Brady also was charged with attempting to manufacturer methamphetamine after evidence of a drug lab was found near the scene where the fire began, Vroman said. Brady was to be arraigned Wednesday.
A second man, Richard Mortensen, 43, of San Pablo, was arrested on warrants from a series of drug and weapons charges.
”We do have (Mortensen) placed with Brady,” Vroman said. The prosecutor was unsure if Mortensen was tied to the alleged drug operation.
Both suspects declined requests for interviews from The Associated Press.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department booked the suspects on murder charges after two air tanker planes collided near Hopland, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Brady was booked Monday, before the collision, on charges of starting an unlawful fire.
The two pilots killed were retired Navy veteran Larry Groff, 55, of Santa Rosa and Lars Stratte, 45, of Chico, both employed by San Joaquin Helicopters, a Delano, Calif.-based company.
Hopland-area resident Jeff Anderson saw the planes collide from the deck of his home.
”They looked like they were closing in on each other,” Anderson said. ”You could tell immediately that they hit.”
Stratte was circling the blaze, waiting to drop his 800-gallon load of fire retardant on the then 250-acre fire when he collided with Groff, according to Jim Wattenburger, of the California Department of Forestry.
Wattenburger watched from the ground as Stratte’s plane sheared off the tail of Groff’s plane and Groff’s propeller smashed into Stratte’s cockpit. Both planes crashed within seconds.
Each pilot was flying alone in their Korean War-era Grumman S-2 airplanes.
Doug Baker, a fellow pilot with 22 years experience flying the S-2, could not explain the accident.
”We are supposed to know where everybody is,” Baker said. ”We are a very close-knit group.”
The cause of the collision remained under investigation.
The fire had already destroyed 12 structures and was threatening more than a dozen others, according to the CDF. It was 100 percent contained at 270 acres Tuesday night and officials expected to have the fire extinguished by early Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board lists six accidents since 1995 involving aircraft operated by San Joaquin Helicopters. Of those six accidents, two involved minor pilot injuries and one 1998 crash resulted in an air tanker pilot death.
Jim Josephson, president of San Joaquin Helicopters, expressed his condolences in a statement released Tuesday.
”They were highly trained, professional pilots who were dedicated to the firefighting mission,” Josephson said. Each pilot had years of experience in aerial firefighting, he added. The company confirmed that the NTSB was investigating the accident.
Nine air tankers and several more helicopters were being used to fight the blaze at the time of the collision.
In Southern California, an 1,800-acre brush fire was 80 percent contained Tuesday morning in the hills north of Los Angeles, just west of Interstate 5. No arrests had been made but fire officials were investigating whether an arsonist started the blaze.
The fire destroyed three structures, including at least one house, and burned to the doorsteps of several luxury homes. Residents were urged to evacuate.
Elsewhere, Montana crews battling a 23,500-acre wildfire between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park got help Monday from about 200 members of the state’s National Guard, boosting the number of firefighters to roughly 900.
At Montana’s Glacier National Park, officials closed four campgrounds and banned backpacking trips in the western part of the park as firefighters battled a 14,000-acre blaze that burned just west of Glacier and forced the evacuation of a dozen homes.
Three large Idaho fires covering about 14,000 acres still were burning Tuesday. The most serious was the 10,500 acre Rough Diamonds fire burning about 70 miles south of Boise that blazed to the edge of a forest road.
If the blaze crosses the road, it will threaten the historic mining town of Silver City.
Fires also crackled across parts of several other states in the West, including Nevada, Washington and Wyoming. All major fires burning in Oregon were contained Tuesday.
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov