Investigation Continues As Officials Plan Autopsy For Firefighter

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- As firefighters across the state mourned the loss of Eva Schicke, a federal-state investigative team continued to probe how she died while battling a wildfire in the rugged Stanislaus National Forest.

Flags flew at half staff above 800 state fire facilities and the Capitol on Tuesday. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials wore black ribbons over their badges, a traditional sign of mourning for firefighters killed in action. Tributes and memories of Schicke, 24, a five-year CDF veteran, also poured into a Web site.

Funeral arrangements were still pending for Schicke, an elite helicopter crew member and the first female CDF firefighter to die on state fire lines.

Meanwhile, the Tuolumne River canyon fire that swept over Schicke and six other crew members Sunday in the forest near Sonora was 40 percent contained at 650 acres. The fire, which has occupied nearly 600 firefighters, should be contained by Friday, said U.S. Forest Service information officer Gilbert Portillo.

Karen Terrill, CDF spokeswoman, said results of a federal-state investigation into the fatality would not be quickly available.

``What they will do is visit and evaluate the scene and interview everyone involved and then create a very detailed report,'' she said. ``It will be a meticulous report so it will take a long time.''

Schicke was working on a fire overseen by the Forest Service.

Her fellow crew members conducted a ``stress debriefing'' session Monday in Sonora, a traditional CDF program where trained trauma counselors help crews talk about the experience and learn what happened.

Officials at CDF's Columbia Air Attack base, Schicke's home for the 2004 fire season, said there were reports of wind shifts during the time of the incident. A helicopter reportedly dropped off the crew about 12:40 p.m. Sunday after a 15-minute ride, then heard calls for help about 1:45 p.m.

Terrill said CDF officials are assigned to each of the crew's family members, including Schicke's mother and brother in the El Dorado County town of Camino.

The family couldn't be reached Tuesday for comment.

Jim Oliver, spokesman for the Tuolumne County sheriff-coroner spokesman, said an autopsy is scheduled for late Wednesday or early Thursday.

The autopsy team will make use dental records to make an official identification, Oliver said, and will also determine the cause of death. Barring complications from the federal-state investigation, the body would immediately be released to the family for funeral services.

Though arrangements and a date were pending Tuesday afternoon, Terrill said traditional firefighter funerals often include honor guards, firefighters from across the state and a ``last bell'' ceremony in which a bell is hit three times with a gong.

Schicke is the 70th CDF firefighters to die on duty. Before her promotion to the elite helicopter unit, she spent four fire seasons at a CDF facility in Arnold.

Terrill identified Schicke's Columbia-based helicopter crew mates Tuesday as Jonah Winger, 29; Shane Neveau, 24; Jon Andahl, 23; Josh Agustin, 29; Thomas Fraser, 25, and Jeff Boatman, 29. Winger was the group's captain.