Severe weather may have played a role in the deaths of two veteran firefighters in a plane crash in northwest Arizona over the weekend.
Fire pilot Matt Miller, 48, and air tactical group supervisor Jeff Piechura, 62, were surveying a new wildfire near the small town of Wikieup, Ariz. on Saturday when the accident happened.
“There were storms in the area,” Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Dolores Garcia said. “That’s one of the factors investigators will be looking through when trying to determine what happened.”
Three federal agencies are investigating the plane crash. Both men onboard were experienced firefighters – Miller had spent about two decades working as a pilot and Piechura had a long career in both state and federal fire services. He had worked as a fire chief in both California and Arizona and, in 2005, won Fire Chief of the Year. He was also a past president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association.
These were the second and third wildland firefighter fatalities so far this year. In June, a smokejumper died from injuries sustained while parachuting into a fire in New Mexico.
“These tragedies hit us at the most intimate levels,” Garcia says. “The wildland fire community is a close-knit community.”
Record-breaking heat and high winds across the West are fueling one of the most severe – and earliest – wildfire seasons in a decade.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Nevada Public Radio and KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.