Witnesses to the crash told fire control over the radio the aircraft had “crashed” before another man answered him: “It’s just a ball of flames.”
The intense fires destroyed homes on the state’s south coast at Moruya and Bermagui while a bushfire “burnt over” an RFS crew attempting to control a fire near Bundanoon, where the Morton fire flared up under north-westerly winds.
The fire overran the firefighters on Thursday afternoon as they attempted to save a property near Penrose, damaging their tanker and equipment.
Three fires were burning at emergency level on Thursday evening: the Badja Forest Road, Clyde Mountain, and Creewah Road fires. All three fires were downgraded to watch-and-act status late in the night.
Each of those fires is relatively close to the coast, with conditions expected to improve through the night as a southerly moves across the state – but the new wind direction is tipped to complicate firefighting efforts.
Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Jordan Notara said Friday will be a day of severe storms in the north-east of the state, including in the Northern Tablelands, the Hunter and Mid-North Coast.
Parts of Sydney could experience thunderstorms, with the temperature likely to hit 27 degrees in the city.
“Weather conditions are likely to be more favourable compared to [Thursday] for assigning firefighting efforts,” he said. “Temperatures are decreasing across active fire grounds.”
On Friday, there are no total fire bans in place, with six regions facing “high” conditions, including the Illawarra region, central ranges and the ACT. Other parts of the state will face “low-moderate” conditions.
Meanwhile, Canberra’s airport was closed as firefighting aircraft used the facility to fight blazes that merged to the south-east of the capital in the afternoon. Trains between Sydney and Canberra were delayed as the train line between Goulburn and Canberra was affected by fires.
‘A large fireball’
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said emergency services had received early reports of “a large fireball” after the plane, which was on loan from aviation firm Coulson, hit the ground.
The fatal crash pushes the national death toll from this season’s horror bushfires to 32, with 24 of those killed in NSW, where fires have been raging for almost three months from the Victorian to Queensland borders.
The conditions experienced by the crew aboard the aircraft as it descended towards the firefront would have been “10 times worse” than any passenger airline turbulence, aviation consultant at Upstream Aviation Tim Collins said.
He said the deadly crash was a sobering reminder of the high risks and “tragic consequences” of fighting large bushfires.
“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,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
It took emergency services several hours to locate the wreckage of the plane, which remains on an active fireground.
“These conditions are extreme … these are not conditions regular pilots want to fly in,” he said. “This is exactly what they are trained for.”
He said the crew would have been made up of two flight crew and one flight engineer.
In a statement, the Coulson company said the aircraft had left Richmond air base on a firefighting mission with a load of retardant.
“The accident is reported to be extensive and we are deeply saddened to confirm there were three fatalities,” the statement said.
Members of the company are expected to arrive in Australia within 24 hours.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three crew members onboard,” a company spokesman said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said flags would fly at half-mast on Friday and added that the fire season was “far from over”.
She said the crash was “a stark and horrible reminder” of the daily risks run by firefighters.
The US Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr, issued a statement on Thursday evening.
“I am deeply saddened by the tragic news we received today. The brave Americans who died near Snowy Monaro died helping Australia in its time of need,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The families and friends of those who we have lost are in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you Australia for your sympathy and solidarity.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “deeply saddened” by the “terrible tragedy” and extended his deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the crash victims.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was in mourning.
“We are mourning the three American firefighters who died in the large air tanker crash in the Snowy Monaro area today,” she said.
“Our hearts go out to their loved ones. They were helping Australia, far from their own homes, an embodiment of the deep friendship between our two countries.”
The four-engine, 1981-built aircraft was chartered by American aviation operator Coulson Aviation (USA) and was brought out to Australia to assist with bushfire operations. The company has grounded its heavy waterbombers as a precaution during preliminary investigations.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau issued a statement confirming it would investigate the crash, with a report to be released in 30 days.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Laura is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Nick Moir is Chief Photographer at The Sydney Morning Herald.