SPRINGVILLE -- A California Department of Forestry "spotter" plane crashed deep into the Sierra Nevada Wednesday morning, killing the two men on board.
CDF Battalion Chief Robert Paul Stone and DynCorp pilot George "Sandy" Willett were killed when their plane went down in the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest shortly after 10 a.m., CDF spokeswoman Becky Redwine said, holding back tears.
Fire crews were battling a blaze late Wednesday that started as a result of the downed aircraft, and multiple agencies were investigating what is believed to be the first air-related accident in CDF history.
Stone and Willett are believed to be the first Tulare County-CDF employees killed in the line of duty.
"We lost two of our family, and it hurts," Redwine said. "Everyone is still very shocked and emotionally affected by today's events."
The crew aboard the fixed-winged OV-10 aircraft was checking on an early morning fire, when the plane went down at about 10:45 a.m. on a ridge between the Frazier Mill campground and Hedrick Pond.
Redwine said there was no contact with the two men before the crash.
A number of post-Labor Day campers at Balch Park heard the impact and said they heard what sounded like "a huge explosion."
"It either was a plane crash or a tree falling," said Curtis Tritch, who was camping at a pond east of the crash site. "It sounded like a chain saw, like someone was sawing a tree, because you could hear the motor, and then you could just hear that explosion."
Judy Price of Lindsay said she heard a loud boom, and minutes later chaos ensued.
"I heard of boom ... then I heard sirens and all types of fire trucks," Price said. "I had never seen anything like this up here."
The explosion sparked a blaze along the ridge. The fire, called the Brown Fire, was the fourth blaze in the area over the Labor Day weekend.
CDF investigators confirmed the first two fires - the Jaguar and Camp fires - were man-made.
CDF crews from the Mountain Home Conservation Camp responded to eyewitness reports of the plane crash and the fire at about 11 a.m.
By 11:30 a.m. more than three dozen inmates and firefighters were staged on Bear Creek Road one mile north of the Balch Park campground.
In total, more than 75 firefighters responded to the fire and crash.
Willett and Stone's families were notified of the crash by a CDF liaison, Redwine said.
Crew members had to hike down to the crash site to fight the fire, Redwine said.
"They had to put out the fires at the plane itself in order to determine the bodies," Redwine said.
CDF helicopters rigged with buckets doused the flames on numerous attack runs.
While Tulare County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue crews were dispatched to the scene, officials braced for the worst, Redwine said.
"I was at the Tulare County Fairgrounds when chief called and told me that one of our planes went down and that the crew may have died," Redwine said. "I told him don't tell me who, because I wanted to be able to truthfully tell people that I didn't know."
By late Wednesday afternoon, the worst was confirmed - Stone and Willett were dead.
Battalion Chief Mike Davidson identified the two men, Redwine said.
CDF crews from neighboring counties continued to fight the five-acre fire late into the afternoon.
They replaced local crews, many of whose members were physically and emotionally drained, Redwine said.
"When this kind of thing happens, it's huge," Redwine said.
CDF officials said they are perplexed as to the cause of the accident, as the aircraft - which is based at the Porterville Municipal Airport - showed no signs of problems prior to takeoff.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and CDF Accident Investigation will try to determine the cause in the coming days.