Firefighting planes from Cedar City collide above Nevada fire, killing both pilots

In this photo shown for illustration purposes, an Air Tractor AT-802F firefighting aircraft drops retardant, similar to the single-engine air tankers used to fight the Bishop Fire in Nevada. | Photo courtesy Air Tractor Inc., St. George News

CEDAR CITY — Two planes that took off from Cedar City to fight the Bishop Fire in Eastern Nevada never came home Thursday afternoon, resulting in the deaths of the pilots of both single-seater planes. 

The location of the Bishop Fire near Elgin, Nevada, about 118 miles west of the St. George, Utah, area on July 29, 2020. | Photo via Google Maps, St. George News

Both single-engine air tankers (SEATs) took off from Cedar City Airport between 11:48 a.m. and 12:08 p.m. Thursday heading to fight the fire that started Wednesday 17 miles southwest of Caliente, building smoke that could be seen into St. George, Veyo and Enterprise in Utah. 

At approximately 12:55 p.m., the air tankers collided in midair, killing the pilot of each plane.

“We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the two pilots and to all those working with the BLM Nevada Ely District,” said Bureau of Land Management Nevada State Director Jon Raby. 

The identities of the two pilots have not been released, pending the notifications of family. The cause of the incident is under investigation.

Firefighting aircraft taking off has been a daily sight at both Cedar City Airport and St. George Regional Airport and have played a large role in what has been a busy two months of fighting wildfires throughout the region, including four major brush fires recently in Washington and Iron counties as well as the Mangum Fire in Northern Arizona across the border from Kanab. 

The Bishop Fire seen from the Ella Mountain Lookout in the Clover Mountains south of Caliente, Nevada, on July 29. 2020. | Photo courtesy Eastern Nevada Interagency Fire, St. George News

The pilots were contracted to the Department of the Interior. Chris Hanefeld, spokesperson for Eastern Nevada Interagency Fire, said SEATs pilots can deliver up to 800 gallons of fire retardant and operate in areas where larger air tankers can not. 

“Contract pilots play an important role in wildland firefighting efforts as the BLM protects the public, natural landscapes, wildlife habitat, recreational areas, and other values and resources,” Hanefeld said.

As of Thursday night, the Bishop Fire had grown to 14,000 acres and was still sending columns of smoke beyond the Nevada border into Southwest Utah.

The cause of the fire, burning barren hillside consisting of timber, two-foot brush and one-foot grass, remains undetermined, Hanefeld said. No private property or structures have been threatened.

Record heat and low humidity in the area has been a challenge. Firefighters are trying to hold the line to the east and southeast and keep flames from stretching into Rainbow Canyon.

Fire officials estimate it may not be until Aug. 6 that the fire will be able to be contained.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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