SAUCIER, MS (WLOX) - Friday marked three years since a helicopter crash in DeSoto National Forest killed two men and injured a third, during a prescribed burn operation. The lessons learned from that crash have helped the U.S. Forest Service prevent further lives lost under largely unpredictable circumstances.
For Assistant Fire Management Officer Cliff Willis, remembering the crash that claimed the lives of pilot Brandon Ricks and forest service worker Steve Cobb, is somber, but also, a chance to look at how far his team has come since March 30, 2015.
"I knew them very well," said Willis. "I flew with both, and I actually had flown the week before in the same helicopter."
For Willis, his first reaction was a simple one.
"I was actually conducting a burn-in Perry County, a couple miles away and heard the entire radio traffic, everything," he said. "At the time, we didn't know what had occurred. You want to help your brothers and sisters, first and foremost. You have a job that you know you're responsible for, and as a burn boss, you know that there are men and women that are depending on you. But then these are also your brothers and sisters that may be in need. So, I guess the first thing is to try to send what help that we can."
Lessons were learned following the incident and investigation.
"Ultimately for us is about learning how we can prevent it from occurring again," Willis said. "So, some of those things that we've enacted has been a part of a learning culture. That learning culture is involved with making sure every mission is necessary, preparing those crews to make sure they're ready in case something were to occur," Willis said.
One of the newest techniques has been implementing redundant GPS trackers so crews on the ground know exactly where an incident occurs immediately.
"The pilot, co-pilot, aerial firing boss, or even the person that's running the aerial ignition device behind the operators, they each have one in their hand. That the moment that they think that something comes up, they can press the button, and it automatically starts transmitting a location that we can pick up and our dispatch as well as the Coast Guard and some of the other agencies that help us," said Willis.
Willis has kept in touch with the families of Ricks and Cobb, as well as Brandon Mullen, who survived the crash. Mullen is still with the Forest Service. He has also joined a group that helps families of tragedies like this one.
The investigation into the crash was inconclusive beyond signs of an unknown malfunction. That investigation is now closed.