Firefighting plane crashes during Horse Gulch fire northeast of Helena • Daily Montanan
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Firefighting plane crashes during Horse Gulch fire northeast of Helena • Daily Montanan

A search is underway after a firefighting plane crashed just after noon Wednesday on Hauser Reservoir near Spokane Bay while battling the Horse Gulch Fire, which is raging north of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the county sheriff confirmed.

The sheriff and the Federal Aviation Administration said only the pilot was aboard at the time of the crash. The pilot’s condition was unknown, and a search began Wednesday afternoon.

According to Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton, the FAA and two witnesses who called 911 to report the crash on the southwest shore of Hauser Reservoir, the crash occurred at about 12:10 p.m.

Firefighting plane crashes during Horse Gulch fire northeast of Helena • Daily MontananThe plane that crashed was an Air Tractor AT-802, a single-engine water-collection aircraft, according to National Transportation Safety Board and FAA spokesmen. It was working for the U.S. Forest Service on a wildfire-fighting mission, Dutton and the NTSB said. Dutton did not provide information on the pilot’s status early Wednesday afternoon.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue, Montana Highway Patrol and several volunteer fire departments responded to the call. Dutton said Gallatin County Search and Rescue and the sheriff’s office will be responding with divers. The teams also plan to use robotic underwater cameras to photograph the scene.

Several search and rescue boats were spotted at the crash site and the crew was preparing to search the water when the Daily Montanan arrived on the scene.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the crash along with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Forest Service, Dutton said. The NTSB will lead the investigation, according to FAA spokeswoman Jillian Angeline.

Lorrie Bernardi and her husband were watching several firefighting planes from their home on the western shore of Hauser Reservoir when they suddenly saw the crash.

“It started filling up and then all of a sudden, I don’t know if it hit a wave or what… but we just saw a big puff of smoke,” she said.

They used a telescope to look out over the bay, where they confirmed the plane had crashed. She and her husband weren’t sure exactly what caused the accident, but they said it looked like the plane had crashed into the water.

Dutton said early Wednesday afternoon that he could not provide further details about the crash but would likely be able to provide them Wednesday evening.

Sarah Taylor Sulick, an NTSB spokeswoman, said an investigator is expected to arrive at the scene Wednesday afternoon to begin documenting the scene and examining the plane, which will be removed and evaluated at a secure location. A preliminary report on the crash will be issued within 30 days.

The Horse Gulch Fire started Tuesday afternoon approximately 5 miles south of York and 2 miles north of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It had an estimated size of 450 acres and 0% containment as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and is burning in the Helena National Forest. The fire is currently being determined to be human-caused.

The Type 3 Incident Command took over the fire Wednesday morning. The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order just before 3 p.m. for residents of Horse Gulch and Cave Gulch to be prepared to evacuate if the order is issued. Dutton said earlier in the afternoon that the sheriff’s office was closing trails and other access roads because people were heading to the area just to see the fire.

“That’s the biggest problem we have right now, people who are curious about what the fire looks like and are trying to get closer to get good pictures,” he said. “That makes it harder to put out the fire.”

Editor’s Note: This is a developing story and will be updated.

Emergency crews responded to a plane crash at Hauser Reservoir around noon on July 10, 2024, after a firefighting plane crashed into the lake. (Photo: Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
Emergency crews responded to a plane crash at Hauser Reservoir around noon on July 10, 2024, after a firefighting plane crashed into the lake. (Photo: Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The Horse Gulch Fire near Canyon Ferry Reservoir on the afternoon of July 9, 2024. ((Photo courtesy of InciWeb)
The Horse Gulch Fire near Canyon Ferry Reservoir on the afternoon of July 9, 2024. ((Photo courtesy of InciWeb)