Deaths of Three American Firefighters a 'Terrible Tragedy' Says Australian PM After Plane Tackling Wildfires Crashes

Three American firefighters died while combatting the wildfires in Australia when the air tanker plane in which they were operating crashed in New South Wales. The identities of the three firefighters have not been released.

The NSW Rural Fire Service said that contact had been lost with a Large Air Tanker which was working in the Snowy Monaro area on Thursday, January 23, and that local ground crews indicated the aircraft may have crashed.

In a statement on Twitter, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: "Deeply saddened to learn of the death of 3 people in the crash of a C130 fire fighting aircraft, north east of Cooma in NSW earlier today. My deepest condolences to the loved ones, friends and colleagues of those who have lost their lives. Such a terrible tragedy."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed that three U.S. residents died while helping to tackle the blazes which have swept through the southeastern parts of the country.

"Heartbreaking & devastating news that three US residents who were crew members operating a LAT in the Snowy Mountains region have lost their lives. Our thoughts & heartfelt condolences are with their families & the tight knit firefighting community," Berejiklian said in a tweet. "Out of respect for the three U.S. firefighters who lost their lives operating a Large Air Tanker, flags will fly at half mast in NSW tomorrow [Friday, January 24]."

Royal Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons confirmed that the three firefighters crashed in a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker.

"It's impacted heavily with the ground and initial reports are that there was a large fireball associated with the impact of the plane as it hit the ground," Fitzsimmons said, reported The Guardian.

"There is no indication at this stage of what has caused the accident [and] it would serve us all well not to speculate. It is still an active fireground and it will take some time with the use of ground crews and a number of aerial surveillance platforms to try to locate the wreckage," Fitzsimmons said.

The aircraft is owned by Coulson Aviation, a Canadian-based private company contracted by the Royal Fire Service for a number of years to help tackle wildfires. Coulson Aviation confirmed that an accident response team had been activated in the wake of the crash.

"The aircraft had departed Richmond, NSW with a load of retardant and was on a firebombing mission. The accident is reported to be extensive and we are deeply saddened to confirm there were 3 fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three crew members onboard," the company said in a statement, ABC News reported.

According to Geoffrey Dell, professor at Central Queensland University and expert in accident forensics and investigation, the aircraft may have crashed because it had been "aerodynamically overloaded," meaning it went down after it turned or changed altitude too quickly for its load.

"It's designed to operate to certain G [gravity]-limits, and if you go over those, different parts of the structure can be overstressed," Dell told Reuters.

According to Reuters, a total of 32 people have died as a result of the Australian wildfires since September, as well as an estimated one billion animals.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has been contacted for further comment.

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Smoke is seen from the Good Good fire on January 23, 2020 in Cooma, Australia. Three American firefighters have have died after their C-130 water tanker plane crashed while battling a bushfire near Cooma in southern NSW on Thursday. Jenny Evans/Getty