Authorities have confirmed three US-born crew members have died after an air tanker crashed in the Snowy Monaro region of NSW while fighting bushfires.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons confirmed in a press conference on Thursday that all three occupants on board the C-130 Hercules were US residents.
“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 and fire management and are professionals in the aviation sector and the aviation firefighting sector,” Fitzsimmons told reporters.
“Those, all three occupants on board were US residents.
″[The aircraft] 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.
“The military helped us in the deployment to try to locate the crash site and locate the wreckage and see if we could identify survivors. 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.”
The crash takes the death toll from hundreds of fires in Australia to 32 since September. An estimated 1 billion animals have also perished, while the fires have incinerated 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.
“Today again we’ve seen tragic consequence where three people have lost their lives after a large air tanker crashed in the Snowy Mountains Monaro region,” Berejiklian told the media conference.
Fitzsimmons said the cause of the accident is still unknown but the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is investigating.
“The federal authorities through the ATSB, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, as well as the New South Wales police force will be undertaking, as is their jurisdiction, appropriate investigations and assessments as to what may have happened to cause or result in this crash,” he said.
Fitzsimmons said the plane had been leased by Canadian aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, which has a second C-130 Hercules working in the Australian bushfires operation.
Coulson had grounded its large air tanker fleet following the accident, pending a review to ensure there is no systemic issue like a fuel problem.
The Canadian company has been operating under contract with the Australian National Aerial Firefighting Centre since 2000, according to the company.
The Lockheed-built four-engine turboprop can typically accommodate between two and six.
Flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed the flight path for an air tanker used in waterbombing operations suddenly stopping in Peak View, south of Canberra.
According to its flight data, the aircraft departed the Richmond air force base in western Sydney around 12:15 pm local time. It dropped off radar just after 2pm.
Peak View is close to a blaze burning out of control in the Wadbilliga National Park, the fire service said.
Several ambulances and a helicopter were at the scene of the suspected crash, an emergency services source said.
Such air tankers typically carry 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant to be released over fires, which can help contain blazes in areas ground crews find hard to reach.
Belinda Greene, a receptionist at the Bredbo Inn Hotel near the suspected crash site, said she heard police cars racing by in the early afternoon.
“We saw a lot of smoke all of a sudden a couple of hours ago,” she told Reuters by telephone.
Reuters contributed to this report.