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Helicopters battling Riverside County brush fire collide mid-air; 3 killed

Sikorsky (top) collided with a Bell helicopter.

August 7, 2023

Three men were killed in a collision between two helicopters involved in firefighting efforts over a brush fire in Cabazon Sunday night.

Authorities confirmed Cal Fire Division Chief Josh Bischof, Cal Fire Captain Tim Rodriguez and Tony Sousa, a contracted pilot, were killed in the crash.

The crash took place about 6 p.m. in the Cabazon area, just south of the Morongo Casino. The area near the collision site is situated just south of the 10 Freeway.

A Bell helicopter flown by a contract pilot with a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) division chief and a Cal Fire air captain on board was in an observer-coordinator role when it collided with a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter while battling the brush fire, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Dept. All three men on the Bell helicopter died. Two people on the Sikorsky, which landed safely, were uninjured.

The Sikorsky is believed to have been dropping water or fire retardant during the brush fire response. Fixed-wing aircraft were also part of the firefighting effort.

The incident took place on Native American land, where firefighters were fighting a 20-acre fire. The fire reportedly began in a structure before spreading to surrounding brush. 

Authorities are working to determine the factors that led to the mid-air collision. National Transportation Safety Board officials were on scene investigating Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday, a giant American flag was hoisted between two extended fire-truck ladders as the bodies of the three men who were killed were escorted to the Riverside County Coroner’s Office. Fire crews, California Highway Patrol officers and other first-responders stood and saluted the procession.

“This sacrifice should not be in vain, that we think about them, we will be there to support them,” said Cal Fire Southern Region Chief David Fulcher in a news conference.  “We will be there today, and I can express that [Riverside County Fire] Chief Bill Weiser has met with two of the family members and we are working on meeting with the third. We just want to let them know that we are there for them.”

Cal Fire confirmed a total of six aircraft in total had responded to the firefighting effort.

“This area has a lot of the light, flashy fuels that are becoming very prevalent with this fire season, where we have a lot of these annual grasses and brush, they’re getting five, six feet tall,” said Cal Fire Public Information Officer Rob Roseen. “You combine that with the winds that we do have in this area, it has a dramatic effect on fires, which is why we utilize firefighting aircraft to stop these fires, to help protect homes and preserve life.”