Three US firefighters have been killed after their waterbombing plane crashed as they battled bushfires in southern New South Wales.
About 2pm on Thursday authorities said they had lost contact with the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which was being used in waterbombing operations in the Snowy Monaro area.
At a press conference two hours later, the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, confirmed that three people had died in the fiery crash. The plane went down at Peak View, north-east of Cooma, at 1.30pm.
“We simply lost contact with the machine and the flight tracker we used stopped,” Fitzsimmons said. “There is no indication at this stage of what’s caused the accident.
“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,” he added. “It is still an active fire ground and it was very difficult to locate the wreckage.”
The three firefighters, who were not identified on Thursday, were contracted by the NSW government through the US aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, and are among dozens of fire crews from North America assisting local authorities.
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the crash showed the risks fire crews faced each day as they worked to protect the community, while the prime minister, Scott Morrison, described it as a “terrible tragedy”.
“My deepest condolences to the loved ones, friends and colleagues of those who have lost their lives,” Morrison said in a tweet.
The crash, which brings the death toll from Australia’s bushfire crisis to 32, comes as a number of blazes flared up on Thursday, prompting three emergency-level warnings in NSW and one in the ACT, where two fires joined to threaten homes near Queanbeyan and caused havoc at Canberra airport.
On Thursday afternoon, the NSW RFS said it was aware of property losses in the south coast towns of Moruya and Bermagui, as a 240,000 hectare (600,000 acre) blaze fanned by a cool change tore through the area.
“I have had field reports of some properties being damaged or destroyed,” Fitzsimmons told the ABC on Thursday night. “I simply don’t have a number at the moment … and it’s too early to even speculate.”
Conditions on Thursday were dry and hot, reaching into the 40s across NSW, while wind gusts strengthened in the south-east, exceeding forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology.
In the ACT, the city was once again blanketed in thick smoke, only two days after a freak hailstorm damaged cars and property. Canberra airport was forced to close briefly after authorities issued an emergency warning for a bushfire near Beard, Oaks Estate and West Queanbeyan.
Residents were advised to seek shelter until crews got a fire near the Pialligo forest under control. Qantas resumed its services later in the afternoon, but Singapore Airlines and Virgin were forced to cancel all flights for the day.
People in NSW and the ACT were asked to conserve energy until 8pm because of the pressure “extreme weather” was taking on the grid.
In Victoria, meanwhile, Melbourne was blanketed in brown rain and play at the Australian Open was pushed back due to the weather.
On Thursday night, more than 1,700 firefighters were working to contain about 70 fires burning across NSW, including 44 that were out of control and three at emergency level.
The RFS warned that hot and difficult conditions would continue through some fire-affected areas throughout the night, but would then improve on Friday and over the weekend.
Still, Fitzsimmons acknowledged the crash would impact firefighting capabilities on the ground.
He said: “Coulsons have grounded their large air tankers this afternoon and, indeed, as a mark of respect and as welfare for the rest of their crews operating large air tankers here in NSW and interstate in Victoria, have grounded the operations pending review to ensure that there’s nothing systemic like a fuel problem or something.”
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said it would not take “any action which will affect aerial firefighting operations”.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has confirmed it will investigate the cause of the crash.