Three American crew members died Thursday when a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia, officials said.
Coulson Aviation in the U.S. state of Oregon said in a statement that one of its C-130 Lockheed large air tankers was lost after it left Richmond in New South Wales with retardant for a firebombing mission. It said the accident was "extensive" but had few other details.
Coulson Aviation identified the deceased Americans as captain Ian H. McBeth of Great Falls, Montana, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona, and flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. of Navarre, Florida.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the deaths and crash in comments to reporters as Australia attempts to deal with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction.
"The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it's crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash," Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she had conveyed Australia's condolences to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Culvahouse Jr.
“Our hearts go out to their loved ones. They were helping Australia, far from their own homes, an embodiment of the deep friendship between our two countries,” she said in a statement.
“Thank you to these three, and to all the brave firefighters from Australia and around the world. Your service and contribution are extraordinary. We are ever grateful,” she added.
According to NBC 7, the C-130 plane was based at the Ramona Airport in San Diego County, California, back in August. It's not clear when the tanker left for Australia.
The tragedy brings the death toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September. The fires have also destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 10.4 million hectares (25.7 million acres), an area bigger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 15,000 liters (4,000 gallons) of fire retardant in a single pass.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the national air crash investigator, and state police will investigate the crash site, which firefighters described as an active fire ground.
"There is no indication at this stage of what's caused the accident," Fitzsimmons said.
Berejiklian said there were more than 1,700 volunteers and personnel in the field, and five fires were being described at an "emergency warning" level — the most dangerous on a three-tier scale — across the state and on the fringes of the national capital Canberra.
Also Thursday, Canberra Airport closed temporarily because of nearby wildfires, and residents south of the city were told to seek shelter. The airport reopened after several hours with Qantas operating limited services, but Virgin and Singapore Airlines canceled flights for the rest of the day.
The blaze started Wednesday but strong winds and high temperatures caused conditions in Canberra to deteriorate. A second fire near the airport that started on Thursday morning is at a "watch and act" level — the middle of the three tiers.
"Arrivals and departures are affected due to aviation firefighting operations," the airport authority wrote in a tweet.
Another tweet from traffic police said "the fire is moving fast and there are multiple road closures in the area. Please avoid the area. Local road blocks in place."
Residents in some Canberra suburbs were advised to seek shelter and others to leave immediately.
"The defense force is both assisting to a degree and looking to whether that needs to be reinforced," Defense Minister Angus Campbell told reporters.
"I have people who are both involved as persons who need to be moved from areas and office buildings that are potentially in danger, and also those persons who are part of the (Operation) Bushfire Assist effort," he said.