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Fighting Wildfires Can Be Deadly

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

At the time, July 1985 was reported to be one of British Columbia's worst forest fire seasons.

In July 1985 over 750 forest fires were burning in British Columbia. The cost of fighting them to that date was estimated to be approximately $45 million, equivalent to $108 million in today's dollars.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
5 BC firefighters die in single accident

The cost in human lives lost that year can't be measured. It was a deadly year for those fighting wildfires.


William Francis Hauber, 40, from Quesnel, died on July 16. 1985 when the Caterpillar he was operating rolled 45 meters down a bank while fighting a wildfire northwest of Chetwynd.


David Alfred Smith, 22, died on July 14, 1985, after being hit by a falling rock while fighting a fire near Golden, BC.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
Crash Location and Cairn Today

However, the single most serious wildfire fatality event that year happened on June 29, 1985.


A Bell 206 LongRanger helicopter carrying 4 firefighters and a pilot caught fire and crashed in the mountains south of Revelstoke, BC. killing all aboard.


The 4 man firefighting RAPP team, all employees of the newly formed "Wilderness Fire Management Inc.," and the pilot were flying from Revelstoke to a wildfire near Beatrice Lake, about 125 KM south, when it is suspected engine trouble ignited a blaze inside the aircraft.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
Pieces of the Crashed Helicopter Remain

In April 1986, during a coroner's inquest, a forest officer testified the last communication from the pilot of the doomed aircraft was "Engine failure, going down".


Before the radios transmit key was released the words "get those doors open" was heard.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
Unidentified Piece of Clothing Near the Cairn

Expert testimony indicated the helicopter's doors could not be opened in flight unless they were kicked out. One possible reason to do so would be because of an engine fire that had spread to the cabin.


It was speculated at the inquest the helicopter hit the ground at about 190 km/h.


A pathologist from Vernon who performed the autopsies said the bodies were "badly burned and fragmented"

Medical examinations also found evidence of smoke in the victim's lungs possibly confirming a fire inside the passenger compartment.


In a time before "Social Media" heroic sacrifices often went unnoticed by the public

"Wilderness Fire Management Inc." was a startup company formed by Reino Keski-Salmi, who was on board that day.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
Location The Bell LongRanger Crashed in 1985

Keski-Salmi, who had moved to Canada as a child, was previously a member of Canada's national cross-country ski team.

He had already started a successful white water rafting tour company and was looking to expand into contract firefighting.



His partner, Russell Gilchrist was also killed in the crash. Both men had several years of experience fighting wildfires.


A third partner, Ray Ault was not on the flight.


5 BC firefighters die in single accident
5 BC firefighters die in single accident

The pilot, Grant Thorpe, was employed by the aircraft owner, Vernon Helicopters.


Today there is a small memorial at the crash site. A stone cairn and a plaque can still be found near a rustic bench cut from local trees.



The memorial location has been overtaken by vegetation. Photos from over a decade ago show small pieces of the helicopter that remain at the site. What appears to be a "Nomex" shirt was found a short distance from the cairn.


Similar Nomex clothing is worn by firefighters.


Although the cairn and plaque are only a 5-minute drive followed by a 10-minute walk from Highway 23 about 10 km north of the ferry slip at Shelter Bay, finding the overgrown site is near impossible on the first visit.


Deceased but not forgotten:

ROY A. FRIESEN

- Abbotsford, British Columbia

- Firefighter, Wilderness Fire Management Inc.

- Date of Death June 29, 1985

- National Memorial Location 24


RUSSELL J. GILCHRIST

- Christian Lake, British Columbia

- Firefighter, Wilderness Fire Management Inc.

- Date of Death June 29, 1985

- National Memorial Location 23


REINO JARHU KESKI-SALMI

- Salmon Arm, British Columbia

- Firefighter, Wilderness Fire Management Inc.

- Date of Death June 29, 1985

- National Memorial Location 24


GRANT A. THORPE

- Vernon, British Columbia

- Pilot, Vernon Helicopters

- Date of Death June 29, 1985

- National Memorial Location 23


MICHAEL A. SHERROD

- New Denver, British Columbia

- Firefighter, Wilderness Fire Management Inc.

- Date of Death June 29, 1985

- National Memorial Location 24



Visit "The Fallen" a website dedicated to all firefighters who have perished


The Aviation Safety Information Website



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