3 dead after Coulson air tanker crashes while fighting Australian wildfires
VICTORIA -- Three American crew members are dead after an aerial water tanker, owned by a Vancouver Island company, crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia.
Coulson Aviation said in a statement that one of its Lockheed C-130 Hercules tankers was lost after it left Richmond in New South Wales with retardant for a firebombing mission.
It said the accident was “extensive,” but had few other details.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the crash deaths in the state's Snowy Monaro region as Australia attempts to deal with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction.
Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson is en route from Vancouver Island to Australia to assess the incident. Grief counsellors have been brought in to the company's Port Alberni facility.
Coulson Aviation president Britton Coulson told CTV News Vancouver Island earlier this month that Coulson had "pretty much all" of its aircraft in Australia as part of the firefighting effort, including two C-130s.
“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,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
He said all three aboard were U.S. residents.
B.C. Forestry Minister Doug Donaldson confirmed that no Canadians were aboard the aircraft, and said his "thoughts are with the family and friends" of those involved.
"On behalf of all British Columbians, I extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the flight crew and to the staff of Coulson Aviation," Donaldson said.
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said she was "shocked and surprised" by the news, adding the whole community is grieving along with Coulson Aviation.
"It's tough when it is a small, family company that is really well-known and well respected in our community for how they operate," Minions said. "It definitely hits closer to home for sure."
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 10.4 million hectares.
Also today, 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 cancelled flights for the rest of the day.
With files from The Canadian Press