Two firefighters dead after plane crashes while surveying Arizona blaze as wildfires rage

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(CBS) – Two firefighters died Saturday after an aircraft they were in to respond to a wildfire crashed in Mohave County, Arizona, officials said. The Arizona Bureau of Land Management told CBS affiliate KPHO-TV that the aircraft helping perform aerial reconnaissance and command and control over the Cedar Basin Fire burning near Wikieup, a tiny community of about 100, crashed around noon.

BLM officials confirmed that a retired fire chief, Jeff Piechura, was one of the people who died, KPHO reported.   

“Our hearts are heavy tonight with sincere condolences to families, loved ones and firefighters affected by this tragic aviation accident that occurred today in Arizona on the #CedarBasinFire,” the BLM tweeted Saturday night.

The plane performing aerial reconnaissance helps direct aviation resources responding to a wildfire, said Dolores Garcia, a spokesperson for the bureau, told the Arizona Republic.

Garcia said these firefighters are one of the earliest personnel responding to a wildfire.

The lightning-caused Cedar Basin Fire has burned 300 acres. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

Firefighters struggled to contain an exploding Northern California wildfire under blazing temperatures as another heat wave blanketed the West, prompting an excessive heat warning for inland and desert areas.

Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F.

If confirmed as accurate, the 130-degree reading would be the hottest high recorded there since July 1913, when Furnace Creek desert hit 134 F (57 C), considered the highest measured temperature on Earth.

About 300 miles northwest of the sizzling desert, the largest wildfire of the year in California was raging along the border with Nevada. The Beckwourth Complex Fire – a combination of two lightning-caused fires burning 45 miles north of Lake Tahoe – showed no sign of slowing its rush northeast from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday.

Late Saturday, flames jumped Interstate 395 and was threatening properties in Nevada’s Washoe County. “Take immediate steps to protect large animals and livestock,” the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District tweeted.

The blaze, which was only 8% contained, increased dramatically to 86 square miles as firefighters sweltered in 100-degree temperatures.

It was one of several threatening homes across Western states that were expected to see triple-digit heat through the weekend as a high-pressure zone blankets the region.

Pushed by strong winds, a wildfire in southern Oregon doubled in size to 120 square miles (311 square kilometers) Saturday as it raced through heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.

The National Weather Service warned the dangerous conditions could cause heat-related illnesses, while California’s power grid operator issued a statewide Flex Alert from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday to avoid disruptions and rolling blackouts.

The California Independent System Operator warned of potential power shortage, not only because of mounting heat, but because a wildfire in southern Oregon was threatening transmission lines that carry imported power to California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation on Friday suspending rules to allow for more power capacity, and the ISO requested emergency assistance from other states. On Saturday, Newsom issued another proclamation allowing the emergency use of auxiliary ship engines to relieve pressure on the electric grid.

Palm Springs in Southern California hit a record high temperature of 120 F Saturday. It was the fourth time temperatures have reached 120 degrees so far this year, the Desert Sun reported.

In California’s agricultural Central Valley, 100-degree temperatures blanketed the region, with Fresno reaching 111 degrees F, just one degree short of the all-time high for the date,

Las Vegas late Saturday afternoon tied the all-time record high of 117 F, the National Weather Service said. The city has recorded that record-high temperature four other times, most recently in June 2017.

NV Energy, Nevada’s largest power provider, also urged customers to conserve electricity Saturday and Sunday evenings because of the heat wave and wildfires affecting transmission lines throughout the region.

In Southern California, a brush fire sparked by a burning big rig in eastern San Diego County forced evacuations of two Native American reservations Saturday.

A wildfire in southeast Washington grew to almost 60 square miles as it blackened grass and timber while it moved into the Umatilla National Forest.

Two wildfires in southern Oregon doubled in size by Saturday, bringing widespread smoke across the southern half of the state. The Bootleg Fire in Klamath County grew to almost 119 square miles on Saturday in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and on private land. The Jack Fire east of Roseburg was burning about 14 square miles.  

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little declared a wildfire emergency Friday and mobilized the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.

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