Authorities on Monday were trying to discern how two helicopters battling a small fire in Riverside County collided, leaving three people dead.

The two choppers struck each other Sunday near Cabazon, with one crashing and the other safely landing. The incident marks a rare instance in which an aviation battle of a California fire resulted in a mid-air crash.

“This was a tragic loss,” said David Fulcher, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s southern region chief.

The three people killed in the crash were identified as a Cal Fire division chief, a Cal Fire captain and the contract pilot of the helicopter. Their names have not yet been released.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, Fulcher said, and investigators were expected to arrive Monday afternoon.

Fulcher said Cal Fire and the Riverside County Fire Department had been dispatched to a reported structure fire around 6 p.m. Sunday near Broadway Street and Esparanza Avenue in Cabazon.

A full wildland fire response team, including fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, was dispatched to the scene because the fire — dubbed the Broadway fire — was reported to have spread to vegetation, Fulcher said.

The crash ignited a separate 4-acre blaze, called the Bonita fire, that was extinguished, Fulcher said. He did not elaborate on the type of fuel that caught fire but described it as “the typical grass and vegetation in the Cabazon area.”

Fulcher did not confirm whether any homes were near where the helicopters collided.

The aircraft that crashed was a Bell helicopter that was responsible for observation and coordination, officials said. The second helicopter — a Sikorsky S-64 helicopter, also called a Skycrane — was able to make a safe landing with two people on board. Fulcher said he could not confirm whether the Skycrane, which typically is a water-dropping helicopter, was dumping retardant or water during its flight.

Both helicopters were contracted by Cal Fire on an as-needed basis, Fulcher said.

Several additional aircraft were assigned to support the blaze. Fulcher said it is “not an uncommon dispatch for a wildland fire to send those resources.”



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