A Cal Fire captain based at Columbia Air Attack Base died early Saturday morning in a vehicle accident in Merced County, Cal Fire officials said.
They identified the officer as Stacy Hamilton.
CHP reported Hamilton, 49, was driving a 2004 Subaru Outback on Snelling Road in Merced County at about 2:20 a.m. Saturday. A report was made that a light-colored vehicle had gone off the roadway and was on its side. When a CHP officer arrived, he found the car overturned 20 feet off the roadway and the driver dead.
Hamilton lived in Shaver Lake in Fresno County with his wife, Katie, and two teenage sons, Ian and Logan.
Cal Fire tweeted Saturday morning, "Please join us in keeping Stacy's loved ones and fellow personnel in @calffiretcu in our thoughts as we mourn this tragic loss," the tweet said.
Jeff Sanders, Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Division Chief, said Monday Hamilton was working at Columbia Air Attack Base on Friday. Sanders said he did not know what time Hamilton left the base.
Hamilton had worked with Cal Fire since 2006 and was with the U.S. Forest Service prior to that.
He trained inmates at the Sierra Training Center forestry training program for four years.
He was transferred to the Columbia Helitack program as a fire captain in 2010, Sanders said.
In 2013 he moved into the fixed-wing side of the operations and was assigned to Columbia Air Attack as an air tactical group supervisor.
“You're almost like an air traffic controller coordinating the scene,” said Sanders.
During fire incidents, Hamilton flew in the back seat of the tactical OV-10 Bronco, the AA 440, which is stationed at Columbia Air Attack Base.
Sanders said Hamilton was not airborne on Friday. A trainee was flying in the backseat of the OV-10 that day, said.
“He hadn’t been flying as often due to the training,” Sanders said.
Sanders said Hamilton’s position was highly specialized within Cal Fire.
The OV-10 is staffed with two people, either a fire captain or battalion chief in the backseat and piloted by a contractor from DynCorp International.
Hamitlon would, generally, wear a headset which was connected to six separate radios and eight frequencies at the same time. He would coordinate tactics with incident command to direct resources during a fire attack and interact with the Air Tankers and helicopter flying below him and with firefighters on the ground.
"Stacy was a skilled and professional air tactical group supervisor," Cal Fire Tuolumne Calaveras Unit said on Facebook.
The OV-10 is required to fly at a minimum of 2,500 feet and be at least 1,000 feet above the air tankers.
Hamilton also had the title of aerial suppression module during fire incidents, Sanders said.
Sanders said Hamilton had spent about 10 days in Riverside County working as a senior instructor for a Cal Fire rescue training hoist program.
The mood was solemn at the Columbia Air Attack base on Monday.
Some CalFire employees said they were still seeking to gather their thoughts about what had happened over the weekend.
One Cal Fire employee, who said Hamilton was his boss for almost seven years, said he planned to write down a series of memories they had together.
Sanders said Hamilton was among the senior staff at the base, which has approximately 30 employees.
On Monday, all four aircraft at Columbia Air Attack Base were dispatched late morning to a fire in the Madera-Mariposa Unit.
On Facebook, people remembered Hamilton as a warrior and one of the best firefighters.
A man who said he worked with Hamilton said, "he's such a down-to-earth, cool guy always with an upbeat attitude."
Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations said it "sends heartfelt condolences to CAL FIRE, TCU, AMU, and the entire California fire aviation community after the loss of Captain Hamilton. Several of our members learned from and worked closely with Stacy over the years. A friend to all who knew him, he will be missed."
Another person said he was "flying with the angels now."
Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered flags at the Capitol to be flown at half staff in honor of Hamilton.
He said in a press release Saturday, "On behalf of all Californians, Jennifer and I extend our condolences to Captain Stacy Hamilton’s family, friends and colleagues in this difficult time. It’s the work of brave firefighters like Stacy that keeps our communities safe and we are deeply grateful for his service.”