Three American firefighters died in a plane crash while battling Australia’s bushfires in the state of New South Wales on Thursday, according to authorities in the region. It’s not immediately clear what caused the firefighting air tanker to crash.
The firefighters, who have not yet been identified, were flying in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules when it lost contact with officials on the ground Thursday afternoon local time (late Wednesday ET). A search and rescue operation was launched and the downed plane was located through aerial surveillance.
The C-130 aircraft, which can carry roughly 4,000 gallons of fire retardant (15,000 liters), was contracted to fight Australian bushfires through the Canadian-based company Coulson Aviation, which has grounded its fleet today.
Coulson told Gizmodo over email that it was “deeply saddened to confirm” there were three fatalities on the aircraft, which had departed from the town of Richmond in New South Wales on a waterbombing mission over the Snowy Monaro region. The aircraft had registration number N134CG.
“The accident response team has been activated as well as local emergency services, Coulson Aviation will be sending a team to the site to assist in emergency operations,” Coulson told Gizmodo. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three crew members onboard.”
Rural Fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons said the plane “impacted heavily with the ground” adding that initial reports indicate “there was a large fireball associated with the plane” when it crashed.
Fitzsimmons said that grounding all aircraft after a crash was “routine practice” and done out of respect for the lives lost, as well as checking to ensure that there aren’t any technical issues which could harm future firefighting missions. Local authorities are still in the process of contacting the families of firefighters who were lost.
“We make sure there’s not a systemic supply issue, like fuel, that could cause other machines to crash. And we just make sure we’re clear to operate and fly with that operator and that aircraft type,” Fitzsimmons said at a press conference on Thursday.
Over 70 aircraft are being used to battle the bushfires in Australia, where at least 32 people have died, eight of them firefighters, as a direct result of the fires which started in September of 2019. An estimated 1.25 billion wild animals have died during the blazes, including a variety of indigenous species like kangaroos, koalas, and wombats.
Australia has a bushfire season every year, but this season has been particularly brutal, with record-breaking heat and dry conditions exacerbated by climate change. The smoke in particular has been brutal for residents of Australia’s largest cities, including Sydney, Melbourne, and the national capital city of Canberra. Dust storms, which people are calling “apocalyptic” on social media, are also ravaging large swaths of Australia.
Canberra was having a very rough day on Thursday as nearby fires caused smoke to blanket the city. Fires were also dangerously close to Canberra’s airport, which has temporarily grounded flights. It’s not clear when the airport may reopen.
At least 80 fires are still burning in New South Wales alone, and half of those are not contained, according to local fire authorities. And Australians, battling not just the physical exhaustion of smoke pollution but the mental hurdles of trying to stay positive, are dreading the tough road ahead.
“Today demonstrates the fire season is far from over,” the Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, said on Thursday afternoon. “Today is a reminder of how every single person who is defending life and property is at risk.”