Search expands for Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot who failed to return from Jan. 31 wildfire survey flight over Ouachita National Forest; weather impedes search effort on 950,000 acres in wooded, mountainous region

OKLAHOMA CITY , February 9, 2014 () – The search for a missing Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot who disappeared — along with his plane — while looking for wildfires last month has been extended into eastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas, an official with the commission said late Sunday.

The search for pilot Jake Harrell began on Jan. 31 after he failed to return from a flight searching for fires in western Arkansas. Crews have been searching some 950,000 acres in the heavily wooded and mountainous region, but snow, fog and and other winter weather conditions have hampered the search.

Commission spokeswoman Adriane Barnes said search teams have been gathering information from satellite images and cellphone towers, which could help indicate Harrell's locations. She said teams also have been following up on leads, including reports from people in the area hearing a plane, but she noted that any wreckage could be obscured by snow and ice.

"We've had two leads in Oklahoma and Texas, and they (authorities) have checked by ground for us," she said. "There are some leads that indicated that he may have been over the Oklahoma line."

The search was expanded after an Arkansas National Guardpilot helping in the search suggested that Harrell may have turned around while at an elevation that prevented any radio communication, Barnes said. She noted that any communication from Harrell could have faced interference from the heavily forested Ouachita National Forest area in which he was flying and that extends into Oklahoma.

But weather has been a huge factor in hampering search efforts, especially for search aircraft getting into the air, Barnes said.

"It's because the visibility is low and the weather is filled with snow and fog," Barnes said.

Meanwhile, Harrell's family released a statement through the forestry commission thanking the searchers and expressing hope that Harrell, a North Little Rock police officer and member of the Arkansas National Guard's 188th Fighter Wing, has managed to survive despite the conditions and being missing for more than a week.

"We continue to be hopeful and optimistic. We are praying for a miracle and for Jake's safe return to his home and family," according to the statement from Harrell's wife, Jaime, and parents, Rick and Pam Harrell.

The statement also asked for privacy for the family, which declined further comment, according to Barnes.

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