World

Firefighting plane crashes in Australia, kills 3 American volunteers

Three crew members were killed Thursday when a C-130 Hercules aerial tanker from the Oregon subsidiary of a B.C. company crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia, officials said.

Coulson Aviation, U.S. subsidiary of B.C. company, grounds fleet pending investigation into cause

In this Jan. 10, 2020, photo, a Rural Fire Service large air tanker, operated by Coulson Aviation in the U.S. state of Oregon, drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning close to homes at Penrose, Australia. Three American crew members died Thursday when a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker crashed. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image via AP)

Three American crew members were killed Thursday when a C-130 Hercules aerial tanker crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia, officials said.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the crash deaths in the state's Snowy Monaro region, which came as Australia grapples with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction.

Coulson Aviation (USA) said in a statement that one of its Lockheed C-130 Hercules 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.

In a statement, the company said it will send a team to the site to assist in emergency operations. Coulson Aviation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Coulson Aircrane of Port Alberni, B.C.

"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," said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

They were helping Australia, far from their own homes, an embodiment of the deep friendship between our two countries.- Marise Payne, Australia foreign minister

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.

"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," he said.

Fires close Canberra airport 

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.

Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 15,000 litres 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."

Also Thursday, Canberra Airport closed because of nearby wildfires, and residents south of Australia's capital were told to seek shelter.

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 the "watch and act" level.

Fire teams perform a controlled burn on Jan. 7, west of Corryong, Victoria. ( Jason Edwards/AAP/Reuters)

"Arrivals and departures are affected due to aviation firefighting operations," the airport authority said 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 defence force is both assisting to a degree and looking to whether that needs to be reinforced," Defence 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.

With files from CBC News