BOISE, Idaho – An Idaho pilot who was killed when his air tanker crashed Sunday in Utah loved the challenge of flying over burning forests or rangeland and believed his efforts to slow the spread of wildfires from the sky impacted lives and the environment.
Todd Tompkins, 48, and co-pilot, Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, were killed when their P2V air tanker crashed while dumping retardant on a 5,000-acre blaze near the Utah-Nevada border.
Tompkins, a 17-year veteran of aerial firefighting, was dispatched to the fire Sunday and immediately added to the flyover rotation, his wife Cassandra Cannon said.
“He always grew up wanting to fly,” Cannon said. “But he really liked this type of flying because it was always interesting and challenging to him. In the back of his mind, I knew he understood the risks.”
“But he used to come back and talk about so many instances where he felt like their work saved communities, that they had saved lives,” she said. “It was powerful to hear him talk about that and recognize that value of what he did.”
Telephone messages and emails sent to relatives of Chambless were not immediately returned Monday.
Tompkins and Chambless began working as a duo this season and had only flown a handful of missions together, Cannon said.
Their plane went down in the Hamblin Valley area of western Utah while fighting a fire started two days before by a lightning strike in eastern Nevada.
Officials describe the weather at the time as windy and hot, the kind of conditions ripe for wildfires to spread across the region’s pine, juniper and cheat grass.
“I send my deepest condolences to the family and friends of the two brave pilots who lost their lives Sunday protecting Americans from an extremely dangerous forest fire,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The son of a United Airlines pilot and triathlete, Tompkins has flown a variety of wildfire missions across the West, including retardant dumps last summer on fires in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Cannon said. In 2007, Tompkins was among a corps of pilots assigned to dumping retardant on Baldy Mountain, the main ski hill at the central Idaho resort of Sun Valley.
Tompkins is survived by three children; Phoebe Turner, 16; Sam Turner, 15, both from a previous marriage; and Paige Tompkins, 10.
“We’re all just devastated,” said Cannon, adding she last saw her husband on May 19 when he returned from flight training in Britain. “It’s very heartbreaking for our whole family. But as this has happened, it’s become clear to me how important he was to people.”