Colorado Pilot Who Died While Fighting Wildfire Went Back to Make 'One More Pass' Before Crash

Marc Thor Olson was a "highly decorated veteran of both the Army and Air Force" with 42 years of experience and more than 8,000 total flight hours, officials said

Marc Thor Olson
Marc Thor Olson. Photo: Rocky Mountain PBS

Heartbreaking new details have been revealed about the final moments of a Colorado pilot, who tragically died earlier this week while battling the Kruger Rock Fire.

In a post on Facebook Wednesday, Colorado Fire Aviation announced that tanker pilot Marc Thor Olson died in the line of duty on Tuesday evening.

"Marc Thor Olson was a highly decorated veteran of both the Army and Air Force with 32 years of service to our country," they wrote. "During Thor's 42 years of flight, he had amassed more than 8,000 total flight hours with an impressive 1,000 hours of NVG flight including in combat and civilian flight."

"While we are gravely aware of the inherent dangers of aerial fire fighting and the questions that remain, we ask that family and friends be given distance and time to process and heal as we grieve this loss," the agency added.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Office (LCSO) first revealed that a single-engine tanker plane had crashed south of Estes Park on Tuesday around 6:30 p.m. in an update on their Facebook page.

Police said it took approximately three hours of searching before authorities found the plane wreckage near the south end of Hermit Park. Sadly, both the pilot — later identified as Olson — and an unidentified passenger died in the crash, according to the sheriff's office.

Marc Thor Olson
Marc Thor Olson on the PBS special. Rocky Mountain PBS

On Wednesday, following an initial investigation, the LCSO provided more context into the crash and their decision to rely on aviation resources to extinguish the wildfire.

"The terrain where most of the fire was burning made it too dangerous to insert firefighters to battle the fire directly," the LCSO explained. "The gusty winds, higher than normal temperatures, and low relative humidity suggested great potential for the fire to grow quickly. Incident Command knew the best chance of getting ahead of the fire was with the use of air drops from aviation resources."

After reaching out to CO Fire Aviation for help, police said they had a conversation with them "about the fire and weather behavior as LCSO wanted to make sure CO Fire Aviation was aware of and comfortable with the conditions."

CO Fire Aviation agreed to offer a plane and pilot and later went on to make aerial water drops in the area. As this was happening, LCSO said their resources on the ground were communicating with Olson.

"The pilot reported the wind was not too bad at the fire and said he would head to Loveland to get a load of suppressant to make a second drop," the LCSO wrote. "About an hour later, the plane returned to the fire and the pilot told ground resources it was turbulent over the fire, conditions were not ideal to make a drop, and that he was going to make one more pass and then return to Loveland."

"Moments later, at approximately 6:37 p.m., ground resources heard the plane crash," the LCSO added.

Marc Thor Olson
Marc Thor Olson on the PBS special. Rocky Mountain PBS

Though the plane wreckage was located around 9:50 p.m. on Tuesday, Olson's body wasn't recovered until Wednesday morning, the LCSO said.

An investigation into the crash is currently underway by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. CO Fire Aviation said they are "fully cooperating" with authorities and partners during this time.

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According to Rocky Mountain PBS, Olson was featured on the network's "Behind The Wings" special earlier this year and discussed the ways pilots could use night vision to battle wildfires.

"The fire doesn't quit at night. Now, we don't have to quit at night," he said on the program, per PBS's Facebook post.

The network also noted that Olson's firefighting flight was expected to be historic, as it would've been the first time a fixed-wing plane was used to battle a wildfire using night vision.

Marc Thor Olson
Marc Thor Olson on the PBS special. Rocky Mountain PBS

In a statement on their website, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control confirmed the plane was not a State-owned aircraft but said they've been studying the use of single-engine air tankers in night operations on wildfires.

"It is too early to know the cause of this tragedy and whether it is even related to night operations, but the DFPC, through its partnership with Larimer County, the US Forest Service, the contract aircraft company CO-Fire Aviation, the FAA and the NTSB, hopes to learn all that we can from this tragedy to advance the safe and efficient use of aviation assets to effectively and safely respond to wildland fire during daytime and potential future night operations," they wrote.

Estes Valley Fire Protection District, where the Kruger Rock Fire is currently burning, also spoke out about the tragedy on Facebook.

"We mourn the loss of pilot Marc Thor Olson. He gave his life serving our team's mission - to protect the citizens and guests of the Estes Valley," they wrote. "He wore a different patch on his shirt, but will not be forgotten for his sacrifice. Our firefighters assisted in recovering Marc off the mountain and were honored to pay him the respect he deserves. We thank all those who participated in the procession and those who continue to honor his memory."

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The Kruger Rock Fire first started on Tuesday morning in an area of "very steep terrain" in Estes Park, according to a press release from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. Authorities believe the flames broke out after high winds in the area blew a tree onto a nearby powerline, causing it to arc and catch fire.

Gusting winds and low relative humidity caused the blaze to rage on, quickly spreading beyond the area and causing mandatory evacuations for nearby homes and businesses. Those evacuations were later downgraded as fire officials worked to contain the flames.

As of Thursday, the fire has burned through an estimated 146 acres and is 40% contained with 210 personnel currently on-site, according to Larimer County.

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