A pilot trying to fight one of several raging Australian wildfires died when his plane crashed Thursday, in the second fatality resulting from the fires that have ripped through the nation's most populous state over the past week.
The 43-year-old man was the only person on board and was trying to drop water onto a blaze in extremely rugged terrain near Ulladulla, south of Sydney, when his plane went down, Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
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"He's a husband with young children and we're all acutely aware that there's a family suffering ... because their dad hasn't come home," an emotional Fitzsimmons said, pausing to compose himself. "We're also feeling for the firefighting community."
More than 100 wildfires have killed one resident and destroyed more than 200 homes in New South Wales state this month. Sixty-one fires were burning Thursday, with 23 out of control, though cooler weather had decreased the fire threat and residents who evacuated had returned to their homes.
Crash site access is difficult
Officials were trying to access the crash site, but the steep terrain and wind was making it difficult, New South Wales police Superintendent Joe Cassar said.
"We are trying to recover the pilot from the scene but are being challenged by weather conditions and nearby fire," Cassar told reporters in Nowra, a city near Ulladulla.
Fire officials also Thursday defended Australia's defence department after investigators revealed a military training exercise with live ordnance ignited the largest of the wildfires. The fire near the city of Lithgow, west of Sydney, has burned 47,000 hectares and destroyed several houses but caused no injuries or deaths.
Fitzsimmons said the defence department's actions were obviously an accident.
"It was a side effect of a routine activity, it would appear, and clearly there was no intention to see fire start up and run as a result of that activity," Fitzsimmons said. "There is no conspiracy here."
Air Marshal Mark Binskin, vice chief of the defence force, said the fire started after a demolition training activity. Defence personnel tried unsuccessfully to snuff it out and fire crews arrived within 30 minutes to help.
Binskin apologized for the fire, but noted the exercise took place on a relatively cool day in which there was no fire ban in place.
"This was not deliberately starting a fire," he told reporters. "This was an accident."
Investigators are still looking into the causes of the other fires. Some were started by power lines brought down in strong winds, and at least one was likely ignited by lightning, the fire service said. A few appear to have been deliberately lit, and police have arrested several children in connection with those.