WIKIEUP, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- A retired Northwest Fire District Fire Chief was one of two people who died Saturday afternoon after an air attack aircraft crashed while helping fight a wildfire in Mohave County.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, an aircraft helping perform aerial reconnaissance and command and control over the Cedar Basin Fire burning near Wikieup crashed around noon. The aircraft performs aerial supervision and coordination for a fire's aviation resources. Officials say two crew members, pilot 48-year-old Matthew Miller and passenger Jeff Piechura, a former Arizona fire chief from Tucson. Miller was a fire pilot with Falcon Executive Aviation, Inc, contracted by the U.S. Forest Service.
"He was a hero. He really was. A good father. A great great father. A great husband, and a great brother," said Christine Piechura, Jeff's sister.
Christine told Arizona's Family that he started volunteering when he was 17-years-old. Piechura was recruited to help build the Northwest Fire District in Tucson before retiring. Piechura's career took him to Stockton, California, where he served as the city's fire chief for a year. It wasn't long before he returned to Arizona, serving as assistant fire chief in Sedona, and helping the City of Tucson.
"We will provide additional information pending next of kin notification. Our hearts go out to the families of our brave wildland firefighters,” a BLM spokesperson said in a statement released Saturday.
The lightning-caused Cedar Basin Fire has burned 714 acres and has zero containment as of Sunday afternoon. The fire is located 14 miles northeast of Wikieup. The NTSB is investigating the crash.
A statement from the Northwest Fire District reads, in part:
Jeff Piechura became the District’s first Fire Chief in November of 1988 and served in that position for 24 years. During his time as Fire Chief, Piechura led the expansion of the District to serve our growing community. Piechura retired from the Northwest Fire District in 2012, yet continued his career in service with the Stockton, CA Fire Department and Sedona, AZ Fire District before returning to Pima County.
During the decades of professional achievement and service, Jeff was never far from his passion of wildland firefighting. He tragically died doing a job he loved and excelled at. Jeff has flown air tactical group supervisor “Air Attack” missions over Arizona and several other states for decades and his actions helped saved countless homes, unknown acres of natural habitat, and protected the lives of thousands of wildland firefighters working on the front lines. In this role he had command and control of all aircraft working within the vicinity of a fire.
Piechura’s passing leaves a tremendous void in the lives of his beloved family, friends, and the thousands of firefighters across the country he worked with. His professional accomplishments are far too many to be captured in a single document and his personal impact on those who knew him is too immense to comprehend. For those of us fortunate enough to work with Jeff, or ‘Chief Pie,’ we will forever miss his warm smile, firm handshake, and endearing embrace he gave those around him.
Governor Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff from sunrise to sunset Tuesday, July 13, 2021, to honor the two men.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The story was updated to reflect the aircraft is not an airtanker, but an aircraft that performs aerial supervision and coordination.