A plane battling back the brutal wildfires in Australia crashed in New South Wales state on Thursday, killing three American firefighters, officials said.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the C-130 aerial water tanker crashed in the state’s Snowy Monaro region while dumping water on one of an estimated 80 blazes ripping through area — located about 400 miles east of Melbourne.
Coulson Aviation — a private Oregon-based company contracted by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service — said in a tweet that the damage to its plane was “extensive.”
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters during an afternoon news conference that officials lost contact with the aircraft around 1:30 p.m. local time., noting that what caused the deadly incident is still unclear.
“The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was large fireball associated with that crash,” he said.
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“Unfortunately, all we’ve been able to do is locate the wreckage and the crash site and we have not been able to locate any survivors.”
The three American firefighters killed in the crash were the only people on the aircraft and believed to be the only fatalities.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed her gratitude for the visiting first responders, who traveled to the other side of the world to help Australia in a time of great crisis.
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“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.”
The most recent round of fatalities brings the death toll related to Australia’s wildfires to more than 30 since September. The blazes have also destroyed upwards of 2,600 homes and burned through millions and millions of acres — a swath land roughly equivalent in size to the state of Indiana.
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In wake of the tragedy, Coulson grounded other firefighting aircrafts as a precaution pending an investigation. The four-propeller Hercules planes can drop more than 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 site of the crash, which firefighters described as an active ground fire.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the same plane was used to battle the massive Kincade Fire in Sonoma County last year.
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“Jennifer and I are heartbroken to learn of the air tanker crash in Australia that claimed the lives of three heroic American firefighters. We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the crew, their friends and loved ones, and our own CAL FIRE family who worked, fought fires, and trained with the crew of Tanker 134,” Newsom said in a statement.
“This tragic accident reminds us all of the too-high cost of the scourge of wildfires, as well as the sacrifice of first responders from around the world. California and Australia, already united by the deadly threat of wildfires, now grieve this tragic loss together,” he said.