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Wisconsin DNR pilot dies fighting fire

Heath Van Handel

Heath Van Handel, 36, an experienced Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, aircraft pilot died Wednesday when the aircraft he was piloting crashed during forest fire suppression efforts near the Town of Cary in Wood County.

Van Handel, a DNR employee since 2006, was a former commercial pilot and flight instructor at Kansas State University in Salinas.

Van Handel was piloting a Cessna 337, twin-engine aircraft, owned by the state Department of Administration and leased to the DNR. He was responding to a wildfire in the town of Cary in Wood County as an air attack pilot--a pilot that observes the fire and radios key intelligence on fuel type and fire behavior to fire fighters below.

The crash occurred at 2:26 p.m. The forest fire has now been contained and controlled. This is the first fatality of a DNR air attack pilot in the line of duty.

The Federal Aeronautics Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have been notified of the incident and the crash site has been secured by the Wood County Sheriff's Department.

Governor Jim Doyle issued a statement on the passing of Van Handel.

"Heath Van Handel was a courageous, experienced pilot who was working to protect our citizens and their properties from a fire today," Doyle said. "We owe Heath tremendous gratitude for his extraordinary service and dedication. The First Lady and I are praying for him, his wife Jennifer, their children and all the others who love him."