Firefighting, helicopter communities rally to support family of fallen pilot
The identity of a helicopter pilot who died helping fight a wildfire near Evansburg, Alta., last Monday has been identified as a 49-year-old heliski pilot from British Columbia.
Heath Coleman died when his helicopter crashed on June 28 west of Edmonton. He was the only occupant at the time of the crash.
Coleman’s helicopter was contracted from Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, based out of Blue River, B.C., where he mostly lived November through April for the winter season. He was the Blue River base manager and had flown with the company for more than 20 years, according to the company.
"We spent hours and hours together, every day. Not just he and I. The guides and Heath and the rest of our staff," senior lead guide Bob Sayer told CTV News Edmonton. "He was well known and loved by everyone in the company. The guys in the ski shop, the waitresses in the dining room. He made everyone feel good."
The company leases its fleet from Yellowhead Helicopters. Sayer called Coleman -- known as Heater by colleagues -- the glue that tied the two companies together.
"He didn't just work for Yellowhead, as I say, he was the glue who kept the two business fully in touch. When there were issues, he's the one you go to," Sayer said.
"He's been our chief pilot of so long, he's the one you go to get problems solved. When the pilots get worked about something, he's the one who clams them down. When the guides get worked about something with the helicopters, he's the one who calms them down."
As of Monday morning, more than $13,600 had been raised for Coleman's wife and two children in a fundraiser set up by Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing.
The Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the incident.
According to Sayer, Coleman had more than 20 years of experience flying with fire crews during the summer. He called the deceased pilot a talented and bright flyer who was very familiar with the Bell 212 helicopter he had been flying at the time of the crash.
"When you got in Keith's helicopter, you felt good… You felt relaxed and you knew things were going to go well," Sayer said.
Coleman's name was to be etched alongside other fallen firefighters from across Canada at a national memorial in Ottawa.
“We will always remember him, and we will always remember his family,” David Sheen, president of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said. “We are there to do our best within our ability to support his family.”
The tragic event is a reminder of the dangers firefighting brings, especially at a time when the wildfire season is not allowing any breaks for grieving colleagues.
“(It is a) heavy burden of work they have to do right now and how the environment and conditions are impacting that,” Sheen said. “We always want everyone to go home and go home safe and stay safe.”
Sayer said he and Coleman used to start the ski season by taking a flight together.
"It'll be odd this year to get into a helicopter with someone else for the first flight of the year. It won't feel the same to start my season without him."