SYDNEY, Australia — Three firefighters from the United States were killed on Thursday as a large aircraft being used to battle bush fires crashed south of the Australian capital, Canberra, the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales said.
The cause of the disaster was not immediately known. The plane went down on Thursday afternoon as blazes were threatening parts of New South Wales, ending a brief lull in the country’s summer of disastrous wildfires.
The aircraft, a C-130 Hercules carrying a load of fire retardant, was operated by Coulson Aviation, a Canadian company that helped battle last year’s California fires and has long worked in Australia.
The plane crashed in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, about 70 miles south of Canberra, according to the Rural Fire Service. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau and the police were investigating the crash, an inquiry that could be affected by active fires in the area.
Shane Fitzsimmons, the Rural Fire Service commissioner, said those on board the plane were experienced and well known to their Australian and American colleagues.
“Our hearts are with all those that are suffering in what is the loss of three remarkable, well-respected crew that have invested so many decades of their life into firefighting,” he said at a news conference. The victims were not immediately identified.
Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, said the crash was a “stark and horrible” reminder of the dangers and risks of firefighting. At least five firefighters — three in New South Wales and two in the state of Victoria — have previously been killed this fire season. The overall death toll from the bush fires now exceeds 30.
On Thursday, fires were approaching the suburbs of Canberra, forcing the closing of its airport to flights. As temperatures climbed and winds picked up, residents in the affected areas around the capital were told that driving could be deadly and that they should seek immediate shelter.
Rain in recent days — a torrent in some areas, a few drops in others — had offered a small reprieve. But on Thursday, with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees in previously fire-stricken states like New South Wales, fire officials once again issued emergency warnings.
By late afternoon, more than 80 fires were burning, half of them out of control, in the state’s south, including in the Snowy Mountains, the Rural Fire Service said. It added that it hoped conditions would ease as the evening progressed.
In other parts of the country, which has been gripped by drought and has just ended its hottest and driest year on record, dust storms covered towns.