Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Three firefighters from the United States were killed Thursday when their water-bombing air tanker crashed while they were fighting bushfires in southeastern Australia, officials said.
The C-130 Hercules large air tanker lost contact with NSW FRS before 1:30 p.m. in the Snowy Monaro area south of the Australian capital of Canberra in the province of New South Wales, where firefighters have been battling devastating bushfires for months, the NSW RFS said in a release.
Operated by Canadian company Coulson Aviation and contracted to the NSW RFS, the aircraft was carrying flame retardant on a firebombing mission when it crashed, killing its three-man crew, the company said.
Gladys Berejiklian, premier for New South Wales province, confirmed that the crew of three Americans had died in the crash.
"Today is a stark and horrible reminder of the dangers our volunteers, emergency services personnel across a number of agencies, undertake on a daily basis," she said, offering her condolences to the victims' families.
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the three crew members were experienced with the specialized aircraft.
"Tragically, there appears to be no survivors as a result of the crash down in the Snowy Monaro Area," he said. "It impacted heavily with the ground and initial reports are there was a large fireball associated with the impact."
Fitzsimmons said it was unknown what caused the crash but it was being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
Coulson has grounded its entire fleet of air tankers to inspect the aircraft and out of respect for those who died, he said.
"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.
The victims will not be named until their families have been notified, he said.
Berejiklian announced that flags would be flown at half-mast throughout the province "out of respect for the three U.S. firefighters who lost their lives."
On Thursday, some 1,700 people were fighting 70 fires, four of which were burning at emergency levels, in the province amid high temperatures, NSW RFS said.
Firefighters have been waging war against the fires that have raged from months, killing at least 22 people and burning more than 12 million acres and 2,100 homes as of Wednesday.