There was a huge fire in the Groom Mountains in summer of 1999, just north of Groom Lake. It started in the evening hours of 8/4/1999, and isolated spots were still burning at noon the next day. The first official story said that it was caused by lightning strike. Later, when it became obvious that this was impossible, the story changed. According to the new story, the fire was caused by an accident involving two B-52 bombers that took off from Area 51. One lost two attached external fuel tanks shortly after takeoff, which exploded on impact with the ground.
This version may or may not be true. As one of our readers recently pointed out, B-52 sometimes carry external fuel tanks for equipment or aerodynmaics testing. These external tanks are designed to be jettisoned, as part of the test or in the event of an emergency. For weight balance both tanks are usually dropped at the same time. It seems unlikely that two tanks full of highly flammable jet fuel are dropped as part of a test so close and in full view of public land, but in an emergency situation this may be the case. Or it is just another cover story for an even more secret test mission that crashed that night into the mountains just north of Area 51.
I saw the flames in the mountains at about 7.30pm from Hwy. 375, and took the photos below, both from a low angle at several locations along Hwy. 375, and from a higher angle at the Powerlines Overlook in the mountain range behind the Black Mailbox. From up there I could see bright flames and a glow in a color spectrum that suggests extreme heat. Clearly not a brush fire after a lightning strike, especially considering how sparse the vegetation is in that area. I could make out two distinct spots that appeared to be the source of the blaze. The center of the larger spot was located in a valley below my line of sight and it almost looked like a small volcano eruption. I watched it until about 10pm, when the flames began to die down. Three or four isolated spots continued to burn all night, and were still burning around noon the next day.
I did not see any fire fighting trucks or planes, or any other attempts to put out the blaze. In fact, except for a couple of security helicopters there were absolutely no planes anywhere around to be seen that night, although it was right in the middle of the summer Red Flag exercises. And my scanner was dead silent that night.
The crash site on the south slope of the Groom Mountain Range is located about 3 miles west of the Area 51 Guard Shack, inside the Groom restricted airspace. This air space is off-limits even for military pilots, and only air traffic going in and out of Groom is allowed here. There were two large fires, approximately 1/2 mile apart, with smaller fires in between. The approximate GPS coordinates are: N 37°21.29' / W 115°43.05' and N 37°21.66'/ W 115°42.63'.
I have no information on the purpose of the mishap flight. But since the Groom Lake base is usually not involved in Red Flag, I do not believe that the mission was connected to the ongoing air exercises. Please let me know if you have any comments on this incident, or if you have seen a similar accident.
Update 03/06/2000: A Freedom of Information Act request regarding the incident to 11 CS/SCS (FOIA), 1000 Air Force Pentagon, Washington, DC 20330-1000 came back with a "no records" determination. Not that I expected anything else, but it was worth a try.