Michael John Fournier was flying a Bell UH-1H helicopter on a water-dropping mission above the massive Hills Fire, approximately nine miles south of the city of Coalinga, when he crashed, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday.
He was the only person aboard the aircraft that was contracted through an outside company, according to the sheriff’s office.
Air and ground resources responded immediately to the crash site, but the search was difficult.
“Around 11:15 am Wednesday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue (SAR) team was requested to the area of S. Lost Hills Road and Sutter Ave. in Coalinga,” the sheriff’s office said. “Personnel were needed to search this rugged terrain and recover the body of the pilot.”
Late Wednesday night, Fournier’s body was recovered and turned over to the county coroner’s office, the sheriff’s office said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the crash investigation and CAL FIRE/Fresno County Fire is assisting.
A GoFundMe page has been established to help support Fournier’s wife and two daughters, who “he loved more than anything,” the page said. As of Thursday afternoon, more than $33,000 had been raised.
Cal Fire released a public message of sympathy Thursday to Fournier’s family.
Fournier was a former television news pilot for a station in San Diego and recently flew helicopters to help with repair work for SoCal Edison, NBC7 reported. He was also a former high school football coach in Covina, about 22 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, according to the report.
He also served briefly as a pilot for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, according to the Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014.
As of Thursday morning, the Hills Fire had burned 1,500 acres and was 35 percent contained. No structures were threatened in the blaze that broke out at 2:26 p.m. Saturday in steep terrain with limited access. Fire crews have also been hampered by extreme hot weather, according to Cal Fire/Fresno County Fire.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.