Pilot dies in crash near Happy Camp

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — An unidentified pilot died Monday when his helicopter crashed on a ridge while fighting the Elk fire, one of many lightning fires burning into their 14th day near Happy Camp, authorities said.

The U.S. Forest Service on Monday withheld any identifying information about the pilot — a firefighter under contract with the agency — or his employer until family members could be informed of the man's death, fire spokesman Mel Cagle said.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department will determine the cause of death and notify the family, and the department expects to identify the pilot publicly today, said Susan Gravenkamp, the sheriff's department spokeswoman.

The helicopter was helping support the Elk fire, one of 30 lightning-caused blazes burning within the Elk Complex near Happy Camp, a small outpost on Highway 96 along the Klamath River near the Oregon/California border.

Cagle identified the helicopter only as "a small, type II" aircraft that the pilot was using to deliver a container of water that was to refill firefighters' water backpacks, Cagle said.

The helicopter crashed on a rugged ridge between Elk and Bear creeks, triggering a small fire that had to be extinguished, Cagle said.

"We have no idea at all right now what happened," Cagle said Monday. "We won't know any of it until we conduct an investigation."

The Forest Service and the National Transportation Safety Board will both investigate the crash, Cagle said.

Seven other helicopters remained at work on the series of fires that so far have burned within 9,085 acres of the Klamath National Forest.

With flames creeping slowly through the remote and rugged forestland, more than 1,100 firefighters remained on the blazes that started July 10 with lightning strikes.

"They're making progress on all of them," Cagle said.

The biggest improvements came Monday after firefighters used drip torches to set an 800-acre backfire that bolstered the Forest Service's defense of Happy Camp, Cagle said.

The back-burn closed part of the path of the Little Grider fire, which remained about a mile west of Happy Camp, Cagle said.

As of late Monday, firefighters had created 50 miles of fire lines. Of the 30 fires within the complex, 24 were 100 percent contained. Collectively, the fires were considered 22 percent contained Monday.

Fire officials expect to have the complex fully contained by July 29. Firefighting efforts so far have cost $8.2 million.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Reporter Anita Burke contributed to this story.

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