Pilot killed fighting Alberta wildfire remembered for big personality, remarkable talent

A helicopter pilot who died last week while fighting a wildfire west of Edmonton is being remembered as a loving father and husband with a decades-long passion for flying. 

Heath Coleman, 48, of Prince George, B.C., died on June 28 as he worked to battle a fire near Evansburg, Alta.

Coleman was flying solo in a Bell 212 when it crashed in a rural area near the fire front. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating why the helicopter went down.

“He was absolutely passionate about flying and was a natural at it,” said Jacob Forman, CEO of Yellowhead Helicopters. “He was a very gifted pilot.

“He didn’t cut corners … he was in the top percentile of pilots.” 

Coleman and Forman were colleagues for nearly a decade. Coleman worked at the Prince George-based company, serving as both a pilot and trainer. 

Known by his nickname “Heater,” Coleman leaves behind a wife and two young adult sons, Forman said.

“He was a guy who always had a big grin on his face and he always had time to talk to people; always gave people the time of day.” 

Coleman was “quite the character” and had a good sense of humour, Forman said. 

“Anybody who knew him always knew him for his sideburns,” he said. “He always sported a big set of chops. And so he got bugged a lot for that. But he didn’t let it deter him. 

“He was a unique individual. And he wasn’t going to let a little bit of ribbing or kidding around change who he was.” 

‘Something catastrophic happened’

The 175-hectare wildfire near Evansburg has been burning since June 22 when it triggered a temporary evacuation of nearby homes. 

Coleman was doing crew runs when his aircraft went down, Forman said.

The day was unseasonably hot and the fire was burning in a boggy area filled with peat moss, he said. 

“It was on approach, as we understand it, in a right-hand turn in to land in the swamp,” Forman said. “There were a number of witnesses to it.” 

While the cause remains under investigation, Forman does not believe pilot error was to blame.

Forman was at the scene with investigators and said evidence was found within the wreckage that ruled out pilot error, instead pointing to critical failure within the machinery of the chopper. It’s unclear why the machinery failed, he said.

“Because of his skill set, it’s just really hard to imagine that [error] played a role,” Forman said. “It certainly appears that something catastrophic happened to a critical component of the aircraft and he would have had no chance to recover.” 

The fire is now classified as under control. Firefighters from across the province continue to work the fire, searching for and extinguishing hotspots.

The wildfire near Evansburg, Alta., that Coleman was dispatched to fight is now classified as under control. (Mae Anderson)

Coleman was also base manager for Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, based out of Blue River, B.C. He had flown with the heli-skiing company each winter season for more than two decades, helping to shuttle tourists on adventures through the mountains. 

The company has set up a fundraiser for Coleman’s wife and sons. 

“We are filled with sadness as we mourn the loss of someone we have known so well for so long and hold very dear to our hearts,” the company said in a statement.

“We express our deepest sympathies to Jennifer, Danton and Ethen, and Heath’s extended family and community of colleagues and friends.

“Heath lost his life in the line of duty while protecting people and property. We honour his service to others as the highest calling.”

Coleman’s name will be added to the national monument for fallen firefighters in Ottawa. 

“Heath will be remembered as a loving husband, wonderful father, superb pilot, co-worker and was a friend to many,” read a statement from the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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