Cape Town - He was among the heroic firefighting helicopter pilots who battled and eventually contained the blazes which scorched the Southern Peninsula in March, emerging unscathed to return to his wife and infant child - but on Wednesday night, Darrel Rea did not make it.
Rea and Jastun Visagie, a firefighter onboard the aircraft, were killed during a forced landing whilst battling a wildfire in the mountainous region of Bainskloof near Wellington.
The pair were volunteers for Working on Fire, who on Thursday morning confirmed their deaths.
“Their next of kin have been informed,” said spokesman Linton Rensburg. “We have provided grief counselling to his team and their families will also be provided with counselling. We ask that the media respect the privacy of the respective families during this difficult time.”
It's the second tragedy to hit the volunteer organisation in just over a month after one of the country's top helicopter rescue pilots, Hendrik Willem “Bees” Marais, was killed when his Huey had to make a forced landing while battling a fire in Cape Point last month.
Working on Fire spokesman Evelyn Holtzhausen said the aircraft crashed on Wednesday after the team attempted to make a forced emergency landing.
“It is important to note that they did not crash and it was a forced landing. There is a technical difference between the two and civil aviation will have to do an investigation.”
The deaths have sent shockwaves through the aviation community. An industry expert, who did not want to be named for professional reasons, said firefighting pilots were often the best in the business, with most having over 3 500 hours of flying experience under their belts.
Rensburg said: “The incident is being investigated by the SAPS and the Civil Aviation Authority and we cannot comment any further on the details of the accident. “
On Wednesday firefighters hoped desperately for a change in weather as wind fanned a massive blaze down the Bainskloof mountains.
It burned around the site where the twisted wreckage of the helicopter lay near the Bainskloof pass road. Charred metal pieces jutted out between the fynbos as police worked into the night combing for evidence.
The aviation expert said new helicopters were expensive to import from America. A well looked second hand Huey, the most commonly used firefighting chopper, could cost as much as $2 million (R24 million).
“And even then it can take up to two to three months to bring into the country because of strict regulations.”
He said there were around 60 Hueys left in the country, and there was definitely a shortage of firefighting helicopters.
Cape Winelands Fire Department spokesman Jaco Thysman said the fire in Bainskloof had started along a hiking trail.
“The fire originated just after 2pm yesterday afternoon on a hiking trail up in the Bainskloof Pass area,” he said. “From there the fire progressively spread due to the aid of wind conditions.”
Thysman said firefighters had been deployed to try contain the fire and prevent damage to nearby farms. No property had been damaged as at 9pm on Wednesday, but at least one farm was lying directly in the fire's destructive path.
“We have posted a huge number of vehicles on the premises to make sure nothing gets damaged,” he said.
On Thursday morning the fire was still burning strongly, wrote Working on Fire in a statement. There were five teams battling the blaze.
Bainskloof Pass was closed to public traffic.
Working on Fire was still reeling from the death of Marais last month, who had been part of the team that battled the fire that destroyed more than 5 000 hectares in the South Peninsula.
Marais crashed in the Olifantsbos area on the western side of the Table Mountain National Park.
On Wednesday night, tributes for Rea and Visagie poured in on social media from firefighters and civilians
Working on Fire tweeted: “Sad afternoon… May their souls rest in peace.”