Posted: Feb 10, 2014 3:56 PM
Updated: Feb 10, 2014 3:56 PM
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) More than a week has passed since a forestry pilot vanished while searching for wildfires in western Arkansas and persistent foul weather has hampered the search, but family members remain hopeful it won't have a tragic end.
Jake Harrell, 34, filled in for a sick co-worker Jan. 31, and was only supposed to be in the air fewer than two hours. Since then, search crews have been tramping through snow and ice across a tremendous, rugged area 950,000 acres to find Harrell and his Arkansas Forestry Commission airplane.
Officials said calls about possible sightings have come in from northeast Texas and eastern Oklahoma, and local law enforcement checked those areas to no avail.
Because of the terrain, the numerous routes Harrell could have flown and the wintry weather, the search has mainly involved people on foot instead of in the air.
"We've had about a day and a half of good flying weather in those 11 days," State Forester Joe Fox said Monday.
Pastor Rob Loy of the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, who is acting as a spokesman for Harrell's family, said the forester's wife, Jamie, and parents are holding up well.
"There are probabilities and possibilities. Jamie and the family definitely understand the probabilities. At the same time, they are clinging to the possibilities, and believing that probabilities aren't intimidating to God," Loy said.
The search is based in Mena, which is a mountainous area, and includes Lake Ouachita, Lake Greeson and numerous river banks and creek beds, Arkansas Forestry Commission spokeswoman Adriane Barnes said.
Fox said there are multiple challenges in trying to find Harrell and the aircraft. The plane was equipped with an emergency beacon, but no one has picked up a signal from it, which Fox said indicates it malfunctioned. Searchers could have flown right over the aircraft and not seen it because of the snow, or it could otherwise have been masked by the terrain.
"Generally, in the forest over there the south-facing slopes have a lot of pine. North-facing slopes have hardwood. The leaves are off the hardwoods and you can see the forest floor pretty well," Fox said.
But areas of lush pine growth is so thick that it is hard to see the ground, particularly where young pine trees are bent over under the weight of snow. Plus, the forest took a beating from the winter storm late last year.
"The December ice storm was pretty tough. Down limbs and timber ... walking a trail, riding a trail. There's some treacherous slopes and drop-offs," Fox said.
Harrell, who had flown for the commission since 2005, had planned to be in the air for a little less than two hours but likely had enough fuel to fly twice that long, Fox said.
Fox said he entertained the question of whether Harrell could have flown off somewhere, a notion that people who know him best said couldn't be further from the truth. Harrell is a devoted husband and father, Fox said. Loy noted that Harrell and his parents have been lifelong members of his church and Jamie Harrell is pastor for the church's deaf congregation.
Plus, Fox said, the pilot assigned to the route called in sick and Harrell had scant notice that he was to fly Friday.
"If it were the case that he was trying to go to a new life, he would have to have planned it in about an hour-and-a-half," Fox said.
About 100 people divided into teams have slowly combed the forest, and a long list of agencies is helping in the search effort. Fox was unsure how long agencies can commit so many resources but he said at least some searchers will keep going until they find Harrell.
On Monday, Fox said one fixed-wing aircraft and a state police helicopter were aloft before more snow and ice moved in Monday evening.
Despite the conditions, Fox said morale was high among the search crews.
"We have to find Jake," he said.
Follow Chuck Bartels on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cbartelsLIT