Australia fires: US crew dead in firefighting

An air tanker has crashed in a fireball while fighting bushfires in Australia, killing the three people on board.

Officials lost contact with the C-130 Hercules plane shortly before 13:30 local time (02:30 GMT) on Thursday.

The cause of the crash in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales (NSW) state is not yet known. The victims were American residents.

More than 80 blazes are raging across the state after hot and windy conditions returned.

The plane crashed in an active fire zone two hours south of Australia’s capital, Canberra, said the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).

“The field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash,” said Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

The last available flight data showed the aircraft – which is owned by a Canadian company – near Cooma.

The three crew members have not been identified.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian have expressed condolences for the firefighters’ families.

“Today, again demonstrates the fire season is far from over,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters on Thursday. Fires in southern Australia are expected to peak in February and continue into April.

Mr Fitzsimmons said the experienced and “well known” crew had been contracted to Australia to help fight the unprecedented bushfires this season.

“Our hearts are with all those that are suffering what is the loss of three remarkable, well respected crew that have invested so many decades of their life into firefighting,” he said.

The Hercules C-130 water-bombing aircraft had been leased from North American firm Coulson Aviation as part of a seasonal arrangement with state fire authorities.

All large air tanker aircraft operations had been suspended for the rest of the day pending investigation into the crash, Mr Fitzsimmons said.

“It was operating as it routinely does with water bombing activities…there is no indication at this stage of what’s caused the accident.”

Since September, Australia has battled a bushfire crisis which has now killed at least 33 people.

More than 10 million hectares – an area almost the size of England – have been destroyed in blazes. The most affected states have been NSW and Victoria.