Three American firefighters died on Thursday when their aerial water tanker crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia, officials said. The NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement that “contact had been lost with a Large Air Tanker which was working in the Snowy Monaro area” on Thursday. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the deaths in the state’s Snowy Monaro region. The plane was a C-130 Hercules, owned and operated by Coulson Aviation, a Canadian company that the RFS contracts to conduct firebombing in Australia. “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,” RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, adding that the cause of the accident is still undetermined. “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.”
He added that other air tankers had been grounded to ensure that there were no “systemic” failures. Wildfires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes in Australia and have killed at least 31 people since September. “They were helping Australia, far from their own homes, an embodiment of the deep friendship between our two countries,” said Foreign Minister Marise Payne.