Helicopter pilot dies in crash while working on Interior Alaska wildfire

An aerial photo of a large wildfire burning in spruce forest
Aerial footage of Clear Fire. (Photo by Isaac Solomon/Division of Forestry)

A pilot working the Clear Fire in Interior Alaska was killed Sunday night in a helicopter crash.

Alaska State Troopers identified the pilot as 56-year-old Douglas Ritchie of Wasilla.

They say Ritchie was flying a 1960 Bell 204B “Huey” helicopter operated by Northern Pioneer Helicopters. It was taking off from the Anderson Airport’s helipad to bring equipment to the wildland fire when the crash happened around 7:30 p.m., reported the Anchorage Daily News. The helicopter caught fire after it crashed.

Ritchie was the only person in the helicopter. The National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska office is investigating what caused the crash. Troopers say no foul play is suspected and that Ritchie’s body has been sent to the state medical examiner for autopsy.

According to the Northern Pioneer Helicopters’ website, Ritchie had been with the Big Lake-based charter operation for 12 years and was its lead pilot.

The helicopter he was flying on Sunday had been contracted by the state to help with wildland firefighting, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The fire grew to more than 9,500 acres over the weekend, and the Denali Borough issued a level 3 evacuation order for three subdivisions in its path. Schools in Nenana to the north and Healy to the south were set up as evacuation sites for people fleeing the fire, which was within 6 miles of Anderson.

There are several other fires burning in the Interior, and the forecast is calling for continued high pressure in the area, said State Forestry Fire Information officer Sam Harrell.

“Unfortunately this long extended drying period is going to be followed by another wave of thunderstorms,” he said.

He said that more lightning combined with a very dry forest duff layer is a recipe for more wildfires.

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