3 US firefighters die in plane crash while battling Australian wildfires

3 US firefighters die in plane crash while battling Australian wildfires
A firefighter keeps an eye on a controlled fire as they work at building a containment line at a wildfire near Bodalla, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. (Source: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - Three American crew members have died when a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the deaths and crash in comments to reporters as Australia attempts to deal with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction. She tweeted condolences to the victims’ families and to “the tight knit firefighting community.”

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says all three aboard were U.S. residents.

Coulson Aviation issued a press release revealing their identities as Captain Ian H. McBeth, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson and flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. They extended their deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased.

Coulson Aviation in the U.S. state of Oregon says one of its Lockheed large air tankers was lost after it left Richmond in New South Wales with retardant for a firebombing mission. The tragedy brings the death toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September.

Berejiklian announced flags in New South Wales would be flown at half mast Friday “out of respect.”

Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state.

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

Scientists fear that some of Australia’s unique and colorful endangered species may not recover from the wildfires. They are looking for surviving representatives of rare species including the kangaroo-like brush-tailed rock wallabies and helping threatened creatures get enough food and water in recently scorched forests.

Koalas are not now in imminent danger of extinction, but scientists worry that the iconic marsupial’s habitat has been greatly reduced by wildfires.

Amid heat waves and drought linked to climate change, some 40,000 square miles of Australia has been charred. The blazes reached into jungles that don’t normally burn and forested areas that already had burned at least once in recent years.

Government officials plan a major reseeding effort.

But scientists say the combination of high temperatures, drought and more frequent wildfires means even fire-adapted forests may not fully recover. New ecosystems would take their place.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. Gray Media Group, Inc., contributed to this report. All rights reserved.