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3 killed after Australian plane fighting wildfires crashes in New South Wales: officials

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WATCH ABOVE: Dust storm sweeps through drought-stricken Australia

Australian fire and government officials have confirmed three people were killed after a C-130 Hercules air tanker crashed while fighting bushfires in the country’s alpine region.

The waterbomber went down in the Snowy Monaro region, located in the southern portion of the state of New South Wales. The crash happened as soaring temperatures and strong winds fanned blazes across the country’s east.

“It demonstrates the dangerous work being undertaken, and it also demonstrates the conditions our firefighters are working under,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at a news conference Thursday.

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Berejiklian said the tanker belonged to a company that was contracted out to help battle the flames, which have killed 29 people and an estimated 1 billion animals since September, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland that’s one-third the size of Germany.

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Coulson Aviation USA, a division of the Coulson Group of Companies based in Port Alberni, B.C., confirmed in a statement that the plane was part of its fleet.

The company, which itself is based out of Portland, Ore., added it will be sending a team to the site to assist in emergency operations.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three crew members onboard,” the company said.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons confirmed the plane was owned by Coulson, and that all three onboard were U.S. residents. There were no survivors, he added.

“Initial reports are that there was a large fireball associated with the impact of the plane as it hit the ground,” he said, adding firefighters were looking to control those flames.

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“It did take some time with the use of ground crews and a number of aerial surveillance platforms to try and locate the wreckage of the plane.”

It was not immediately clear how the Lockheed-built four-engine turboprop crashed.

Flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed the flight path for an air tanker used in waterbombing operations suddenly stopping in Peak View, south of Canberra.

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According to its flight data, the aircraft departed the Richmond air force base in western Sydney around 12:15 p.m. (0105 GMT). It dropped off radar just after 2 p.m.

Peak View is close to a blaze burning out of control in Wadbilliga National Park, the fire service said.

Such air tankers typically carry 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant to be released over fires, which can help contain blazes in areas ground crews find hard to reach.

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Belinda Greene, a receptionist at the Bredbo Inn Hotel near the suspected crash site, said she heard police cars racing by in the early afternoon.

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“We saw a lot of smoke all of a sudden a couple of hours ago,” she told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

Australian safety authorities said they were gathering further information on the incident.

Authorities have closed the airport in Canberra, the capital, as two emergency-level fires joined into a single out-of-control fire nearby.

Residents and businesses near fires were told it was too late to leave as thick plumes of dark smoke smothered the neighbouring suburbs.

—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters