Jul. 22--A 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter fell about 200 feet to his death while training to rappel out of a helicopter on Tuesday, investigators say, possibly a result of a safety oversight.
Thomas Marovich of Hayward was killed immediately when he struck the bed of the Trinity River at Big Rock in Willow Creek, said Humboldt County Coroner Dave Parris. Failure to check a safety hook-up may be behind the accident, according to reports Parris said he's received.
"The sense is that there was a safety overlook," Parris said.
Marovich was given emergency life support at the scene, but was soon pronounced dead.
The helibase is active to fight the Backbone Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness about 36 miles northeast of Willow Creek. Marovich worked on the Modoc National Forest, and was training with the Chester Helitack Crew from the Lassen National Forest when the accident occurred.
Fire information officer Robin Cole said that the crew, including the deceased firefighter, were assigned to the 6,300-acre Backbone Fire and were doing weekly training.
Marovich's family was notified in person by Forest Service personnel Tuesday, Cole said.
Modoc National Forest information officer Suzanna Johnson said that Marovich was in his second year of the forest's fire apprentice program. Rappelling was part of the rotation apprentices go through, Johnson said.
The Forest Service has begun an investigation into the incident and is working with the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators from the safety board are also looking into the crash of a helicopter on the Backbone Fire earlier this week that left its two pilots with minor injuries.
The Forest Service began using rappelling as a means of dropping firefighters into remote areas to fight wildfires in the early 1970s. Marovich's death appears to be the only fatality that has occurred during an actual rappel in the Forest Service program's more than 30 years. Only a handful of Forest Service rappellers have been killed, those during a helicopter crash and when fire overran their positions.
The Backbone Fire started on July 1 from lightning strikes on the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. Fire managers expect to have the fire contained by July 24.