05/30/2013 08:27 EDT | Updated 05/30/2013 08:29 EDT

Kristina Norstrom Dead: Mother Worried About Daughter's Risky Job

RCMP Wood Buffalo
FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Kristina Norstrom grew up as a tough tomboy who rode horses on her family's rural property in southern Alberta before she became a government biologist and flew across vast northern forests to study wildlife.

She loved working with animals but didn't often talk about her job with her family. Still her mother, Linda Norstrom, worried about her oldest child being in the air.

"My husband wouldn't tell me either when she had to go up, because I didn't want to know," she said Thursday through tears. "Any time that they have to look for animals in the helicopter means there's danger."

Norstrom, 39, died Wednesday when the chopper she was in crashed in the Birch Mountain area northwest of Fort McMurray. The pilot, Bryce Campbell of Golden, B.C., was also killed.

Fellow provincial biologist, Simon Slater, survived the crash and was recovering in hospital.

Officials with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development said the two scientists were surveying vanishing herds of woodland caribou. On Wednesday's trip, the biologists had been collecting radio collars that had fallen off some of the animals.

Norstrom had worked for the province for several years and was stationed in Athabasca, about an hour's drive north of Edmonton. She lived alone on a rural property with her dog and some stray cats, said her mother.

She often came home to the family farm in High River, south of Calgary, to visit. She last helped her dad tag calves and, on Mother's Day, weeded her mom's entire garden.

She was a smart, kind and beautiful woman, inside and out, said her mother.

"She always put everybody else first, including her job," she said. "She died doing something she loved — I just don't know why she died."

Investigators were still looking into the cause of the crash but indicated weather conditions at the time appear to have been good.

Jon Lee of the Transportation Safety Board said the chopper went down over level, forested terrain that appeared dry from photos of the site.

"It is flat and boreal forest," he said. "It is not in water. The ground looks pretty firm."

Two investigators were at the scene Thursday and a third was in Fort McMurray at the offices of helicopter owner Wood Buffalo Helicopters. That investigator was expected to interview Slater in hospital.

He was conscious and talking but understandably traumatized, said Fiona Schmiegelow, a professor in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta.

Slater, one of her graduate students, has worked in caribou research for the last decade, she said. He finished his degree in December and started working with the province in January.

She said Slater's wife was with him in the Fort McMurray hospital and, although he was listed in stable condition, he had serious internal injuries, cracked ribs and damaged vertebrae.

"We're certainly hoping for a full recovery for Simon."

Schmiegelow said air travel and survey work are part of the job for field biologists, and she has known several over the years who have died in air crashes.

"There is obviously some risk associated with it and it's not something people take lightly."

Jim Allen, head of game management for the province in Edmonton, met Norstrom more than 10 years ago when she was a student doing elk research. She loved animals and the biologist job fit her perfectly, he said.

"Her heart was certainly in the right place."

He said the group of wildlife biologists in Alberta is small — most knew Norstrom — and they're all devastated by her death.

Aurora Helicopters, parent company of Wood Buffalo Helicopters, said the dead pilot was married with a daughter. Campbell also used to work as a back-country ski guide for the Chatter Creek lodge in British Columbia.

"We are deeply saddened by this event and feel the loss greatly," Aurora's president, Michael Morin, said in a statement.

The company's website says it offers services that include helicopter tours, support for the energy industry, pipeline and environmental monitoring and forest-fire fighting.

Premier Alison Redford and Environment Minister Diana McQueen also offered condolences.

"The loss of a family member, co-worker or friend is truly one of life’s biggest challenges, and I hope that those close to the individuals find comfort in friends and loved ones during this difficult time,” Redford said in a statement.

Said McQueen: "On behalf of the Government of Alberta, I offer my deepest sympathies to those affected by this tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of both individuals, including their work families who now grieve for their colleagues."

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