‘It’s Just a Ball of Flames’: 3 Americans Die in Plane Crash While Battling Australia’s Wildfires

The human death toll from Australia's hellish fire season is now at least 31.
January 23, 2020, 11:43am
A firefighter battles the Morton Fire as it consumes a home near Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia

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Three Americans have been killed in a plane crash in Australia while helping to fight the bush fires that continue to burn out of control.

The three died when the C-130 water tanker plane they were flying crashed after being called to battle a bushfire near Cooma, a town in southeast New South Wales, on Thursday.

“It's just a ball of flames,” a nearby plane said in radio communication with flight control.

The plane had been chartered by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and was owned by Coulson Aviation, an aerial firefighting company based in Oregon. All three crew members were employed by Coulson Aviation.

The plane took off from Richmond Air Force Base in New South Wales at 1 pm local time on Thursday, and disappeared from flight radar an hour later.

The plane had left Richmond with “a load of retardant on a firebombing mission,” Coulson Aviation said in a statement on its Facebook page. The company has grounded all other flights as a precaution and said the owners of the Coulson Aviation’s parent company, who are based in Canada, would be in Australia within 24 hours.

“The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash,” Shane Fitzsimmons, Rural Fire Service Commissioner, told a press conference. “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.”

“There is no indication at this stage of what’s caused the accident,” Fitzsimmons said.

READ: Bushfire survivors describe what it's like fighting flames from their doorstep

While the New South Wales fire service has a handful of its own planes, the vast majority of its aerial efforts are conducted with chartered aircraft. Two weeks ago, a pilot of a waterbombing helicopter managed to swim ashore after his aircraft crashed into a dam while he was refilling near the border with Victoria.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Thursday’s incident “again demonstrates the fire season is far from over.”

The tragedy brings the human death toll from the bush fires to at least 31 since September. The fires have also destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed over 25 million acres, an area bigger than the state of Indiana.

READ: What does weeks of bushfire smoke actually do to your lungs?

Scientists estimate that at least one billion animals have been killed in the fires.

Cover: A firefighter battles the Morton Fire as it consumes a home near Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo (AP Photo/Noah Berger)