National

Nagano solicits outside help after losing most-seasoned fire-rescue chopper pilot in crash

Kyodo

Nagano is seeking the cooperation of other prefectures to deal with emergencies in the mountains after its only experienced firefighting-capable helicopter pilot was killed in a crash Sunday during a training exercise.

Masaji Iwata, 56, was one of nine members of a rescue crew killed in the crash on a snow-covered mountain in Nagano Prefecture. Iwata had over 27 years of experience with over 5,100 hours of flight time.

According to the Nagano Prefectural Government, there are two other helicopter pilots, but they are still undergoing training to fight fires.

Because the helicopter that crashed was the only one in the prefecture able to fight fires, the prefecture said it will have to depend on six neighboring prefectures, including Niigata and Gifu, with which Nagano has signed mutual support agreements. Nagano Gov. Shuichi Abe said Monday the prefecture may sign agreements with more regional governments.

Nagano is anticipating the need for more rescue services as more people take to the mountains during the spring snowmelt.

Experts say the shortage and aging of firefighting-capable helicopter pilots is becoming a serious problem in Japan, where mountainous areas cover some 70 percent of the land.

According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, all prefectures except Saga and Okinawa have firefighting-capable helicopters that are dispatched to fight mountain fires and deal with other disasters when land routes are blocked. Such helicopters were dispatched 6,842 times nationwide in 2015, up 1.5 times from 2003. Some 30 percent were engaged in rescue activities.