A truck driver hauling about 50 tons of rice straw for Rim Fire recovery efforts died Friday morning when his big rig went off the Clavey River Bridge.
California Highway Patrol said the driver was a 26-year-old Manteca man, but couldn’t release his name this morning. CHP Officer Nick Norton was still waiting for Tuolumne Sheriff’s Coroner Rob Lyons to confirm the man’s wife had been notified.
Norton said other family members were notified and had probably already told her, but he needed confirmation from the coroner before he could release anything further.
Lyons, who also oversees the sheriff’s search and rescue team, this morning was responding to a call for a missing hiker in Yosemite National Park.
The man who died Friday was driving for Gigli Hay Inc., a Lathrop-based company under contract with the U.S. Forest Service to provide the material for the Burned Area Emergency Response Team’s aerial mulching operations, which involves spreading rice straw over thousands of acres of burned land to prevent erosion.
CHP said the accident occurred at the bridge on Cottonwood Road about 10:30 a.m.
Jason Austin was the first CHP officer to arrive at the scene and said a witness told him the 1989 International semi-truck’s brakes appeared to have some sort of a mechanical problem.
Austin said witnesses were following in a vehicle behind the deceased man’s truck at about 40 mph, headed east to unload the straw.
The witnesses apparently said the truck started to speed up ahead of them and the brake’s began smoking.
The truck entered a right-hand curve to get on the bridge and went through the guardrail, plummeting about 150 feet to the river floor. It appeared to be carrying a full load, which is about 50 1-ton bales on a double-axle flatbed trailer.
Lyons arrived on the scene about an hour later.
U.S. Forest Service personnel closed the road to through traffic while the Tuolumne County Search and Rescue Team worked to remove the man’s body from the wreckage. The road has been closed to the public since the fire, and on Friday was only open for loggers and contractors working on the BAER team’s aerial mulching project.
California Fish and Wildlife Warden Darren Walther responded due to fuel and oil from the truck possibly spilling into the Clavey River, which feeds into Don Pedro Reservoir. He said the recent rains have raised the river’s level to the point where it was unlikely the department would be able to contain and vacuum anything that spilled.
Most trucks that size feature two gas tanks containing between 100 and 200 gallons of diesel fuel each, Walther said. He didn’t think that amount would have any “huge environmental impacts” on the river.
Burned Area Emergency Response Team Leader Tom Beddow was at Sacramento International Airport waiting for a flight home to Springerville, Ariz., when he was contacted for comment Friday afternoon.
The accident happened just prior to Beddow leaving the area after spending two months overseeing emergency projects to stabilize soil and repair roads that were damaged by the Rim Fire.
Beddow said he’s been a BAER team leader since 2007 and this was the first fatality that’s happened during post-fire aerial mulching projects.
“We’re all very saddened about the accident,” he said. “We’ve had trailers tip over before because of a curve or something, but nothing this devastating.”
Beddow said all of the truck drivers working on the operation and their vehicles must follow state regulations and inspectors have been checking for all the required Caltrans permits and certifications of drivers entering the burned area.
CHP said emergency crews left the scene about 4 p.m. Friday and the wreckage was pulled from the canyon using a tow truck on Saturday morning.