VANCOUVER — British Columbians whose lives and homes were protected by tireless crews this fire season owe a debt of gratitude to a helicopter pilot who died in the line of duty and all of his firefighting colleagues across the province, the Mounties said Sunday.
Robert Christopher Woodhead, 53, of Stoney Creek, Ont., was operating a Bell 212 helicopter with a line and water bucket Friday afternoon when the aircraft went down in the Fraser River, near Lytton, B.C.
RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said Mounties believe Woodhead died soon after the chopper crashed in water 15 metres deep and with a swift current.
“We have met and spoken to the family,” Moskaluk said.
“It is believed that Mr. Woodhead perished in the river.”
Woodhead, who was based in B.C., was last seen in the water just after the crash by another pilot who was flying overhead.
That pilot tried to save Woodhead by lowering his own line and bucket into the water but the rescue attempt proved unsuccessful.
Moskaluk said search crews have recovered Woodhead’s flight helmet, as well as pieces of debris from his helicopter, but they have yet to find the man’s body in the water.
“In incidents of this nature, with the incertitude of the person’s fate, it leaves all in a suspended state of deep grief,” he said.
“Our thoughts, along with those of all British Columbians, whose lives and homes were protected in this and in past fire seasons by the courageous efforts of ground firefighters and the pilots assigned to battling these blazes, are with the Woodhead family at this time.”
Those words were echoed by British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell.
“Woodhead and firefighters throughout the province risk their safety, every hour of every day, to protect our communities and our forests,” Campbell said in a statement.
“British Columbians owe a debt of gratitude to those firefighters and I want to thank each and every one of them for their courage and dedication.”
Moskaluk said he’s watched a number of fire crews work over the years and he’s always left amazed by their work ethic.
“This individual, Robert Woodhead, is a human being who was obviously dedicated to his work,” he said.
“People that get into this line of work in regards to operating air machines and working under emergency situations fully know well the risks involved and are dedicated to their trade.”
Woodhead’s family in Stoney Creek declined comment when reached by phone. Moskaluk said the victim’s brother, who resides in Alberta, has arrived in Lytton.
“His brother was realistic and took the news as best he could,” Moskaluk said. He added that Woodhead has adult children but could not provide further details.
Woodhead’s aircraft was owned by Alberta-based Elbow River Helicopters. The company released a statement Sunday saying they were “deeply saddened” that Woodhead has not been found.
Torrie Chartier, the company’s general manager, declined to comment on the Bell 212 aircraft’s safety record.
The Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash.
Moskaluk said the search for Woodhead will continue, but it will be modified.
“There’s not a designated incident command post overseeing the daily search itself,” he said, adding that crews from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Hope Search and Rescue remain on scene.
Woodhead was contracted to work on the Intlpam fire, which currently spans 12 square kilometres. The blaze was first discovered on July 25 and is believed to have been caused by lightning.
Lytton is about 260 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.
Friday’s crash was the second this fire season.
A single-engine amphibious water bomber cartwheeled into Okanagan Lake on July 25 after the pilot inadvertently left his landing wheels down. He escaped without injury.
A helicopter pilot and two pilots of a four-engine water bomber died in two crashes during the record 2003 B.C. forest fire season.