Calif. firefighters headed to Dixie Fire site switch gears after witnessing plane crash

The five-engine strike team was driving from one wildfire to another when they witnessed a large fireball explosion in the sky near the airport


Kevin Valine
The Modesto Bee

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Firefighters from a Stanislaus County strike team had left one massive wildfire and were headed to another Monday afternoon when they saw the fiery crash of a jet aircraft that smashed into trees as it was trying to land at the Truckee Tahoe Airport.

The five-engine strike team was on its way to Chico to join the firefighters at the Dixie Fire after spending a week helping fight the Tamarack Fire when the jet crashed about 1:20 p.m. The team was a mile or so away from when the jet crashed, said Tim Tietjen, the Modesto Fire Department's division chief and the strike team leader.

Crews work at the scene of a plane crash in Truckee, California.
Crews work at the scene of a plane crash in Truckee, California. (Photo/Modesto Fire Department)

"We were demobilized from the Tamarack Fire ... and driving from Minden, Nev., to Chico," Tietjen said in a phone interview. "As we were coming down Highway 26 we saw a huge fireball in front of us. I knew we were passing the airport. ... I immediately knew it had to be an airplane. It was a substantial explosion, at least 150 feet in the air."

The FAA in an emailed statement identified the aircraft as a Bombardier CL 600 jet — which the website jetadvisors.com says is more like an airliner than a private jet and similar to a Boeing 737 — and said it crashed as the pilot was attempting to land at the airport.

The FAA said there were three people on board the jet.

The Stanislaus Country strike team is made up of engines from the Stanislaus Consolidated, Burbank Paradise, Turlock Rural, Denair and Keyes fire agencies. Tietjen was leading the team in his Modesto Fire Department sport utility vehicle.

Stanislaus Consolidated Battalion Chief Clint Bray is the strike team leader trainee and was with Tietjen.

Tietjen said the strike team followed a Truckee Fire Protection District ambulance to the crash. He said they were then joined by an engine from Cal Fire and another from the U.S. Forest Service. He said the strike team members and the other firefighters worked on getting the fire under control.

The Truckee Police Department reported no one on the ground was harmed and no buildings were damaged in the crash. The jet crashed along Reynolds Way and near the Ponderosa Golf Course.

"It crashed into a neighborhood," Tietjen said. "Luckily it did not hit any homes. ... A couple of homes had minor damage from flying debris."

Tietjen said firefighters had the blaze under control in about a half-hour. After a debriefing among themselves, the 19 members of the strike team were back on the road around 4:30 p.m. for Chico.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate, according to the FAA statement. The NTSB will be in charge of the investigation and will provide additional updates. Neither agency identifies people involved in aircraft accidents.

The Dixie Fire has burned more than 197,000 acres since July 14 in Plumas and Butte counties, according to Cal Fire. The Tamarack Fire has burned more than 68,000 acres since July 4 in northern Nevada and California, according to InciWeb, which describes itself as an interagency all-risk incident information management system.

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(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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