SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom called three California firefighters “heroic” Thursday after they were killed when the air tanker they were in crashed while battling the deadly wildfires that have devastated Australia.
Newsom did not release the names of the firefighters but did confirm they were members of the Cal Fire contingent that had recently arrived in Australia to battle the blazes.
“We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the crew, their friends and loved ones, and our own CAL FIRE family who worked, fought fires, and trained with the crew of Tanker 134,” he said. “This tragic accident reminds us all of the too-high cost of the scourge of wildfires, as well as the sacrifice of first responders from around the world. California and Australia, already united by the deadly threat of wildfires, now grieve this tragic loss together.”
The three victims have been identified as 44-year-old Capt. Ian H. McBeth of Great Falls, Montana; 42-year-old First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona; and 43-year-old flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. of Navarre, Florida.
The C-130 Hercules was instrumental in last fall’s battle of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which was the largest wildfire in California in 2019.
The Coulson Aviation-owned air tanker, operating on contract with Australia’s Rural Fire Service, crashed on Thursday in the Snowy Monaro area of New South Wales during a firefighting mission.
“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,” Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said in Australia.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she had conveyed Australia’s condolences to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Culvahouse Jr.
“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,” she said in a statement.
Payne added: “Thank you to these three, and to all the brave firefighters from Australia and around the world. Your service and contribution are extraordinary. We are ever grateful.”
The tragedy brings the death toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September. The fires have also destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 25.7 million acres, an area bigger than the state of Indiana.
Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 4,000 gallons of fire retardant in a single pass.
Spokeswoman Robyn Baldwin of Coulson, with headquarters in the Canadian province of British Columbia and extensive U.S. operations, declined to identify the crew members.
“We ask for privacy at this time as we mourn the loss of our crew members,” Baldwin said.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the national air crash investigator, and state police will investigate the crash site, which firefighters described as an active fire ground.
“There is no indication at this stage of what’s caused the accident,” Fitzsimmons said.
Berejiklian said there were more than 1,700 volunteers and personnel in the field, and five fires were being described at an “emergency warning” level — the most dangerous on a three-tier scale — across the state and on the fringes of the national capital Canberra.
Also Thursday, Canberra Airport closed temporarily because of nearby wildfires, and residents south of the city were told to seek shelter. The airport reopened after several hours with Qantas operating limited services, but Virgin and Singapore Airlines canceled flights for the rest of the day.
The blaze started Wednesday, but strong winds and high temperatures caused conditions in Canberra to deteriorate. A second fire near the airport that started on Thursday morning is at a “watch and act” level — the middle of the three tiers.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.