A $3.5 million dollar helicopter operated by a Wyoming-based aircraft company and assisting with water drops on the Donnell Fire crashed on Saturday afternoon within the southwest containment perimeter of the fire in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The pilot, who was the only person in the helicopter when it crashed at about 3:45 p.m., sustained minor injuries and was able to walk away from the scene, said Steve Rasmussen, public information officer for the Donnell Fire interagency management team.

The aircraft was a 1977 Bell 212 medium helicopter contracted by the United States Forest Service to assist with water drops and crew movements within the Donnell Fire.

The Donnell Fire has burned 35,684 acres of wilderness and forest land in Tuolumne and Alpine counties, and as of Monday afternoon was 62 percent contained.

Kevin Shields, president of Trans Aero Ltd. in Loveland, Colorado, the operating company for the owner of the helicopter, Roberts Aircraft, which is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, said the work was “fairly routine” and something that the business was “very familiar and proficient at.”

Shields described the crash as a “forced landing” due to “some unknown event that was occuring with the aircraft,” he said.

“He had to pick a spot and head for it,” Shields said.

An official cause of the crash has not been determined.

Ian Gregor, communications manager with the Federal Aviation Administration Pacific Division, said on Monday that the helicopter “crashed and rolled” at the accident site.

Both Gregor and National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Eric Weiss said an investigation was underway to determine the cause.

Within the next 10 days, the NTSB will submit a preliminary report on the accident which will not include the cause, Weiss said.

It typically takes the NTSB a year or more to determine the cause of an accident.

Rasmussen said he did not know the exact location of the crash site, but said it was within “Division A” of the Donnell Fire containment zone. Division A included the location of the suspected fire origin and was in the southwest portion of the fire containment zone, he said. The Donnell Fire was divided into a total of five divisions, he added.

According to Tuolumne County Sheriff’s logs, a person near Highway 108 and Forrest Road 5N06 in Strawberry reported a possible helicopter down at 3:49 p.m.

Rasmussen described it as a “hard landing” that was not on a designated helipad.

Shield said the pilot sustained a few injuries and walked out of the crash site for some distance before he was picked assisted by Forest Service personnel.

The pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics and was kept overnight in a hospital for observation. He is expected to make a full recovery, Shields said.

The damage to the helicopter has not been determined, Shields said.

The helicopter remains at the crash site for the FAA and the NTSB to look at Monday or later in the week, he said.

“I'm not saying it won't be up in the air any more. I just have not yet seen pictures,” he said. “It’s certainty damaged, I just don't know the extent.”

Though the helicopter was constructed in 1977, it was “continually maintained and refurbished” with “many parts of it that were virtually brand new at the beginning of this year,” he said.

The $3.5 million valuation included the refurbishments and additions to the craft.

Through the weekend, about 524 personnel from 11 hand crews, seven helicopters, nine engines and five water tenders have continued to fight the slowly expanding Donnell Fire.

The fire has continued to grow on the eastern perimeter into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, with the possibly of small spot fires to be created by southwest directed winds. The central effort on Monday was to strengthening fire lines on the eastern edge of the containment zone, and for the removal of hazard trees and other rehabilitation work near Kennedy Meadows.

A Forest Service press release noted that fire crews are preparing for a possible expansion of the flames up the Arnot Drainage to the Highland Lakes area.

Rasmussen said the Cliff Fire, a lighting caused fire outside the perimeter of the Donnell Fire but burning towards the planned operation zone of the Donnell Fire, ignited within the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest on Sunday.

No direct suppression was made because no flames were seen by a rapel team in a helicopter above the area, Rasmussen said. A water drop was made on the area during the monitoring process, he said.

Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office also said on Monday that all evacuation advisories and orders regarding the Donnell Fire are now lifted, but Forest Closure Orders are still in place.

Highway 108 is open, but vehicles are prohibited from stopping or deviating from the highway between Eagle Meadow Road and Kennedy Meadow Road. Kennedy Meadows Resort is open.

Permits are being issued by the Forest Service for cabin owners seeking to evaluate their properties, as well as hunters, from the Summit Ranger District, Rasmussen said.

“Tree mitigation and firefighter operations still going, so we’re keeping that clear for firefighter safety,” he said.

About 54 structures and 81 minor structures were destroyed in the Highway 108 area, including the historic Dardanelle Resort, since the fire ignited on Aug. 1. The cause is unknown and under investigation.

Current forest closures include the Pacific Crest Trail between Highway 108 and Highway 4.
Rasmussen said forest closures could be lifted by Sept. 30, but said that date is being “continuously evaluated.”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.