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‘Missed greatly.’ Flag draped over helicopter pilot killed fighting Fresno County wildfire

A firefighting helicopter makes an approach to drop water on the Ranch fire in the hills above a cluster of homes along the San Gabriel River near Azusa, California. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The helicopter pilot killed while fighting a wildfire near Coalinga has been identified as Michael Fournier, 52, of Rancho Cucamonga, the Fresno County Coroner’s Office announced Thursday morning.

Fournier was the only person onboard his helicopter when it crashed Wednesday morning while battling the Hills Fire. The crash remains under investigation.

Guardian Helicopters based in Ventura County confirmed Fournier was one of their pilots. Fournier was contracted to help fight the Hills Fire.

A union representing Los Angeles County firefighters said Fournier was also one of their pilots for a short time and will be “missed greatly.”

“He made a big impact on all who knew him,” a statement from International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1014 reads.

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Fournier also coached CrossFit. One of those he coached, Joseph Collins, called Fournier a “giant of a man” in a tribute on Facebook: “He was quick with a smile, first bump, and encouraging word. His giant, sweaty bear hugs at the end of every workout were the best. You could feel how much he loved life and people in each and every one of his hugs. He was by far the nicest and kindest person I have ever met.”

The Southern California man also was a former football coach in Covina, along with previously flying helicopters for a TV station in San Diego and Southern California Edison, a news station in Los Angeles reported.

GoFundMe donation page was started to help his wife and two daughters.

“We send our sympathies to the family during this difficult time,” Cal Fire wrote in a post Thursday afternoon.

Fournier’s body was recovered by a search and rescue team around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and turned over to the coroner’s office at 11 p.m., said Tony Botti, spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. It took the SAR team six and a half hours to get in and out of the rugged terrain, Botti said.

The department reported Fournier was on a mission to drop water on the Hills Fire approximately nine miles south of Coalinga, west of Highway 33 when he crashed.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the crash investigation, assisted by Cal Fire and Fresno County Fire.

Zoë Keliher, a senior aircraft accident investigator with NTSB, said a preliminary report about the crash will be posted within the next 10 days.

She also said Guardian Helicopters had a “call-when-needed contract” with Cal Fire. Keliher said Fournier’s flight departed at 8:46 a.m. Wednesday.

Flag draped over pilot’s body during recovery mission

Botti said the search and rescue team draped an American flag over Fournier’s body when they found him and carried him back to a Jeep.

“SAR decided to bring the flag to honor this pilot for two reasons. One, he was on the front lines helping in an emergency,” Botti said. “Two, we did not know if he was former military or law enforcement. We felt it was just the appropriate thing to do.”

Botti said the deputy coroner also spoke with Fournier’s wife.

The SAR unit that retrieved his body consisted of 13 people, deputies and volunteers, known as the Jeep Rescue Unit or “Jeepers,” Botti said. Two others accompanied them, a deputy coroner and crime scene technician.

Botti said the Jeeps departed around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday along a powdered dirt path a firefighting bulldozer cut. It was smoky and hilly. At the end of the path, the SAR team hiked a few hundred yards up a steep hill with loose dirt. Botti called the Jeeps “essential to make it through these conditions.”

Hills Fire conditions, containment

The Hills Fire, which started Saturday, has grown to 1,500 acres and was 35% contained early Thursday morning. No structures have been destroyed.

Battalion Chief Seth Brown, spokesman for Cal Fire/Fresno County Fire, said firefighters are working very hard in steep, rugged terrain with temperatures over 100 degrees.

Containment efforts have been hampered due to extreme heat and limited access. Full containment is not expected for another week.

“And now on top of fighting the fire, they are having to deal with the loss of the pilot,” Brown added. “We are checking in with our firefighters and making sure they are doing good.”

The Hills Fire is one of numerous wildfires now burning across California, which prompted a statewide emergency declaration from Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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© 2020 The Fresno Bee