What we know Wednesday: Kruger Rock Fire crews fighting fire, investigating plane crash

Editor’s note: This story about a wildfire near Estes Park has been made free for everyone to view due to public safety concerns. To support the work of the Coloradoan and to ensure we can keep providing this service in the future, subscribe today.

This story includes Kruger Rock Fire updates from Wednesday. Find Thursday's updates on the fire near Estes Park in this story.

Kruger Rock Fire crews will be working two fronts Wednesday.

Firefighters will be battling the fire on the south edge of Estes Park while investigators will examine the wreckage of a firefighting plane that crashed Tuesday evening, killing the pilot.

About 200 people are expected to be working the fire Wednesday.

Here are the latest fire updates from Wednesday. You can read updates from our coverage Tuesday here.

Kruger Rock Fire grows to 145 acres, 40% contained

The Kruger Rock Fire had grown to 145 acres and was 40% contained as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service reported.

Fire crews were making progress building handline to contain the fire on its southern and eastern flanks and would continue to monitor the fire overnight, officials said.

Work on the rugged northern flank of the fire was scheduled to continue Thursday, when warmer and windier weather was expected to return to the fire area.

The U.S. Forest Service and Larimer County Sheriff’s Office are jointly overseeing efforts to battle the fire just south of Estes Park, near Hermit Park Open Space.

— Kelly Lyell

Pilot in air tanker crash is identified

The pilot who died while fighting the Kruger Rock Fire on Tuesday night has been identified as Marc Thor Olson with CO Fire Aviation.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control released his name Wednesday afternoon and said the plane was contracted by Larimer County.

A cause of the crash has not yet been determined, the DFPC said in a news release.

The agency said the military widely and successfully uses rotary and fixed wing aircraft at night using night vision technology but acknowledged that there is practical less information about its use in wildland firefighting.

"It is too early to know the cause of this tragedy and whether it is even related to night operations," the news release said, "but the DFPC, through its partnership with Larimer County, the U.S. Forest Service, the contract aircraft company CO-Fire Aviation, the FAA and the NTSB, hopes to learn all that we can from this tragedy to advance the safe and efficient use of aviation assets to effectively and safely respond to wildland fire during daytime and potential future night operations."

— Rebecca Powell

Highway reopened, some evacuations areas downgraded to voluntary

U.S. Highway 36 was reopened from Estes Park to Lyons just before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and a mandatory evacuation order for residents and businesses in the area south of Meadowdale Lane along the west side of the highway to the Boulder County line was downgraded to a voluntary evacuation advisory, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said.

An evacuation order for residents and businesses on the east side of Highway 36, including the Pole Hill Road and Panorama Peak areas, to the Boulder County line was lifted.

The highway had been closed from Mall Road, just east of the Lake Estes dam, to Apple Valley Road, just west of Lyons, since Tuesday afternoon because of the Kruger Rock Fire.

Residents in the area of the voluntary evacuation advisory may return home but should be prepared for mandatory evacuations if the fire behavior changes, officials said.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in place for the Little Valley area on the southeast side of Estes Park and the Hermit Park area just south of Estes Park.

— Kelly Lyell

Fire grows slightly overnight; feds join command

The fire's estimated size is 140 acres with 15% containment as of 7 a.m. Wednesday, according to the Roosevelt National Forest.

Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests joined Larimer County in unified command of fire because much of the fire growth was on national forest land.

Under unified command, the forest service will provide general fire updates and Larimer County will provide information on evacuations and primary road closures.

Updates will be provided on Twitter at @usfsclrd and @LarimerSheriff or by calling the joint information center at (970) 980-2500.

With favorable weather today, firefighters plan to take advantage of cooler temperatures and lighter winds, opening the door for the possibility of air resources in support of firefighters on the ground in the steep terrain.

Additional firefighting resources have been ordered and are continuing to arrive from throughout the county, state and region.

The forest service asks visitors to use caution with fire as forest conditions remain dry.

— Miles Blumhardt

Estes Park schools remain closed

Estes Park schools remained closed for a second straight day Wednesday because of the Kruger Rock Fire, officials said.

Schools were closed just before their scheduled start Tuesday because of a power outage believed to be related to the fire.

They remained closed Wednesday because of evacuations and road closures, Estes Park School District R-3 said in an email that went out to students’ families, staff and others Tuesday afternoon. After a briefing with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, the district learned there were no plans to lift the evacuations and road closures for the fire overnight “because of the winds and unpredictable nature of the fire.”

Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for areas from Little Valley on the southeast side of Estes Park east to Pinewood Springs, and U.S. Highway 36 was closed from Mall Road, just east of the Lake Estes Dam, to Apple Valley Road, just west of Lyons. Colorado Highway 7, which could serve as an alternate route, has been closed from Lyons to Allenspark since September for road construction.

The email went on to note that about 20 of its 135 or so staff members would not be able to work Wednesday because they were either evacuated from their homes, unable to get to work because of road closures or involved in firefighting efforts.

— Kelly Lyell

Air tanker crashed in same area in 2002

The crash site was just a couple miles away from the site of another fatal air tanker crash 20 years earlier.

Both crewmen were killed when the left wing separated from a former U.S. Navy World War II patrol plane that was being used to fight the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park. The plane went down along U.S. Highway 36 just east of Estes Park, scattering wreckage along a path of several miles, according to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash.

The main debris pile, including the fuselage, was found in Lion Gulch, near Moose Mountain, just south of Highway 36. That’s about 2-3 miles miles, as a crow flies, from the spot near the Homestead Meadows Trailhead, where searchers found the wreckage of the single-engine Air Tractor late Tuesday night.

The NTSB investigation into the 2002 crash determined that the plane’s age and conversion to firefighting use were factors in the crash, noting that the Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer was manufactured in 1945 and “was not designed with the intention of operating as a firefighting plane.”

It was owned and operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, Inc., of Graybull, Wyoming, and under contract to perform fire-retardant application by the U.S. Forest Service, according to the NTSB report.

Both the Navy and Coast Guard had previously used the plane for patrols until 1956, when it went into civilian use as an airtanker. Tanks to hold up to 2,000 gallons of fire retardant were added, and it was used to fight fires up until the time of the crash.

The plane, which had logged more than 8,300 flight hours, according to the NTSB report, was on its eighth retardant drop of the day on the Big Elk Fire, which burned about 4,800 acres south of Estes Park, according to the Estes Park Trail Gazette. It was operating out of Rocky Mountain Regional (then known as Jeffco) Airport in Broomfield.

The two pilots killed in the plane crash, one of two fatal crashes involving aerial firefighting equipment on the Big Elk Fire, were Rick Schwartz of Ulm, Montana, and Milt Stollak of Cathedral City, California.

A helicopter fighting the same fire crashed 12 days later, killing pilot Gordon Knight of Boulder, the Trail Gazette reported.

— Kelly Lyell

Crash investigation ongoing

This will be handled by the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board.

The single-engine Air Tractor crashed around 6:37 p.m. and search crews found the wreckage at 9:49 p.m. The pilot died in the crash.

The identity of the pilot will be released by the Larimer County Coroner's Office.

The crash site is in steep, wooded terrain in the vicinity of south end of the Larimer County-managed Hermit Park Open Space.

Investigators will be trying to determine the cause of the crash.

This was the first fixed-wing aircraft to fight a fire at night in Colorado, according to the Coloradoan's television news partners at 9News.

9News reporter Marc Sallinger spoke with the pilot who died in the crash at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland about his history-making flight.

Among a series of Tweets, Sallinger wrote: "A tragic and sad day. We now know the pilot of the plane that crashed tonight fighting the wildfire in Estes Park died I was with him as he prepared for his flight and took off from the airport. Minutes later the plane went missing.''

FlightAware shows that the aircraft departed Fort Morgan Municipal Airport at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, arriving at the Loveland airport at 4:38 p.m. It then left for its first fire mission at 6:13 p.m. and contact was lost at 6:36 p.m..

Flightradar24 shows the plane left the airport and circled in the fire area several times before it crashed.

Flight pattern of Air Tractor firefighting plane that crashed during the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park, Colo., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.
Flight pattern of Air Tractor firefighting plane that crashed during the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park, Colo., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

The plane, an Air Tractor AT-802, is registered to CoFire Aviation out of Fort Morgan, according to flightaware. 9News did a story on the company's night time aerial firefighting capabilities this summer.

Investigators will need to determine if the plane can be recovered due to the remoteness of the crash site and threat of nearby Kruger Rock Fire.

CoFire Aviation's website reads: "As a State of Colorado Company engaged in wild land fire suppression operations, we are challenged with working in high-risk and dynamic environments that are not always predictable. It is the responsibility of each employee, cooperator and contractor to conduct aviation operations that have been planned properly, approved by management, that utilize the correct equipment and personnel, and are carefully executed per company Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to minimize risk. Safety is CO Fire Aviation’s first priority.''

— Miles Blumhardt

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Wednesday's firefighting weather forecast

Firefighters will have a one-day window of better weather Wednesday to battle the blaze, which was reported around 7 a.m. Tuesday. It is believed the fire was caused by strong wind knocking down a power line.

Firefighters will see much better conditions Wednesday than they did Tuesday, according to the forecast.

The National Weather Service is calling for a high near 35 degrees, about 25 degrees cooler than Tuesday. Winds are expected be 8 to 13 mph with gusts as high as 21, about half of Tuesday's wind speeds.

The relative humidity was 82% as of Wednesday morning.

The weather service has issued a red flag warning from 10 a.m. Thursday through 5 a.m. Friday for the fire area as well as much of the foothills, South Park and the Palmer Divide.

A very dry airmass will drop relative humidity to as low as 6% with wind gusts increasing to 30-40 mph.

Saturday brings a 20% chance of rain/snow mix.

— Miles Blumhardt

Mandatory evacuations remain in place

Mandatory evacuations remain in place for residents in the Hermit Park, Little Valley and Pinewood Springs area. Voluntary evacuations remain in place for other areas near the fire.

U.S. Highway 36 remains the only road closed in the are due to the fire.

— Miles Blumhardt

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Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Wednesday updates on Kruger Rock Fire and plane crash near Estes Park