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A view of a wildfire burning on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 in an area south of Fish Creek Road in the Little Valley area on the south side of Estes Park. (Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith)

A single-engine air tanker crashed Tuesday night while responding to a wildfire burning just south of Estes Park. The pilot and sole occupant of the plane was killed.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said the plane crashed at about 6:30 p.m. in the Hermit Park area. The wreckage wasn’t found until about 10 p.m. 

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash. It can take more than a year for the NTSB to release a report on what caused an aircraft to go down.

“The airplane was an Air Tractor AT-802A and it crashed during fire suppression operations,” NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said in a written statement. “An NTSB investigator is responding to the scene.”

The crash site was close to where firefighters are battling the Kruger Rock fire. CO Fire Aviation Inc., which owned the plane that crashed, identified the pilot as Marc Thor Olson, who was an Army and Air Force Veteran.

“The Co Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers,” the Fort Morgan-based company said in a Facebook post. “Co Fire maintains a close working relationship with multi regulatory agencies and is fully cooperating with the proper authorities and partners during this investigation.”

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control said in a tweet that the plane was responding to the Kruger Rock fire.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and fellow firefighters during this difficult time,” the agency said.

The deadly crash Tuesday appears to be the first involving a firefighting aircraft in Colorado in two decades.

Firefighting aircraft don’t typically fly missions at night in Colorado because it’s so dangerous, but there has been a recent push to change that.

9News reporter Marc Sallinger reported that Tuesday night was the first time a fixed-wing aircraft was being used to fight a Colorado fire at night and that the pilot of at least one plane battling the blaze was using a night-vision device.

Single-engine air tankers are small airplanes that are frequently used to fight wildfires in Colorado. They are similar to a crop duster and can drop water and fire retardant.

It’s rare that firefighting aircraft crash while responding to wildfires, but it has happened before.

A single-engine air tanker drops retardant on the South Reservoir Fire near Elko, Nev. Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press, Ross Andreson)

In 2002, two firefighting planes crashed about a month apart while fighting fires. One of the planes was a Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer and it crashed while fighting the Big Elk fire near Estes Park, killing the two pilots, Ricky Schwartz and Milt Stollak.

The Kruger Rock fire is burning near Estes Park after igniting Tuesday. It had spread to about 150 acres as of 6:30 p.m. and was 15% contained. The blaze is threatening structures and has prompted mandatory evacuations.

Colorado had a relatively docile 2021 summer fire season compared to a year before when there were several record-setting fires. But the Front Range has been very dry in recent in weeks and fire officials have warned that climate change has made large, destructive blazes possible throughout the year.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...