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DNR grounds its planes and pilots after crash kills a fire-fighting monitor

Wisconsin's natural resource agency is temporarily grounding its 10 airplanes and 11 pilots, after a crash killed a pilot who was tracking a wildfire.

Gov. Jim Doyle called Heath Van Handel, 36, of Appleton a courageous, experienced pilot.

Witnesses said his plane was circling the fire at a low altitude, when it took a steep dive to the ground.

It happened Wednesday in Wood County, 12 miles southwest of Marshfield.

Department of Natural Resources secretary Matt Frank said his agency will work with state and federal departments to go over maintenance records and see if they can learn anything.

He said his people were still dealing with the shock of the crash.

Officials said a person who was burning debris started the fire and it burned about two acres.

Van Handel is a former commercial pilot and flight instructor. His 42-year-old craft was temporarily stationed at Necedah during the wild-fire season.

It's normally kept in Oshkosh, and it was said to have had its required maintenance.

Frank promised the DNR's fire-fighting efforts would not be hampered by the grounding of the planes. He said he would seek help from neighboring states if it's needed.

Van Handel was the first DNR pilot killed on duty.

In 1998, a crash near Tomah killed two DNR staffers an a pilot from the state administration department.