Australia

Death of US firefighters while fighting NSW bushfires a 'body blow': Fire chief

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and (left) Zeus the C-130 firebomber. Source: AAP

The death of three US firefighters in an air tanker crash in southern NSW has been described as a "confronting" reminder of the challenges of this fire season.

The death of three US firefighters who were battling bushfires in southern NSW when their air tanker crashed has been described as a "body blow" to the firefighting community.

The three men - seconded to Australia from the US - died after the C-130 water tanker smashed into the ground 50km northeast of Cooma on Thursday afternoon.

The cause of the crash remains unclear.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott are seen at NSW Rural Fire Service headquarters in Sydney.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott are seen at NSW Rural Fire Service headquarters in Sydney.
AAP

The three firefighters who died after their plane crashed while battling raging bushfires in southern NSW have been remembered as "brave Americans" as authorities paid tribute to the trio.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the men, aged 42, 43 and 45, were highly experienced and dedicated to the "art" of aerial firefighting.

"It's a body blow for everyone in the firefighting fraternity, in the community of NSW and further afield," he told reporters in Sydney on Friday.

"It's a confronting and sobering reminder of the enormity of the risk and challenge associated with this fire season and all the firefighting effort that goes along with it."

Mr Fitzsimmons said he had spoken to Canada-based company Coulson Aviation which owned and operated the plane, known as Zeus.

An international firefighter looks on during the farewell to Canadian and US firefighters at Novotel Sydney Airport in Wolli Creek.
An international firefighter looks on during the farewell to Canadian and US firefighters at Novotel Sydney Airport in Wolli Creek.
AAP

He labelled the C130 aircraft a "workhorse of the air" which could carry 15,000 litres of water and integrate with firefighters on the ground.

The owners are due to fly into Sydney on Saturday and the families of the fallen men also expected to arrive in the city over the weekend.

It comes as NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott called this fire season "possibly the darkest summer in the state's history" as he paid tribute to the three American firefighters.

Mr Elliott paid tribute to the three Americans on Friday, saying there was "nothing new in the Australian-US-Canadian relationship".

"We’ve been helping each other for over 20 years in terms of emergency services," he said.

Mr Elliott thanked all of the international volunteers who had come to help NSW firefighting efforts in what "will possibly be called the darkest summer in the state's history".

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
AAP

"In my house when we farewell guests after their stay there's a black hole when they go," Mr Elliott said at the farewell event in Sydney.

"That's what we're going to find with you guys."

A minute's silence was held during the farewell breakfast on Friday.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shakes hands with US and Canadian firefighters.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shakes hands with US and Canadian firefighters.
AAP

"The firefighting fraternity is a tight-knit family, a fairly small family and the crew on board were well known, not just to their colleagues here in Australia," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

"Our hearts are with all those that are suffering what is the loss of three remarkable, well-respected crew that have invested so many decades of their life into firefighting."

Mr Fitzsimmons said the US and Canadian fire crews made a discernible difference in the firefighting effort.

"What you have been able to provide is some reprieve, some rest for crews who have been going for weeks and months," he said.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shows NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian a map of fire affected areas as part of the recovery operation on Thursday.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons shows NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian a map of fire affected areas as part of the recovery operation on Thursday.
AAP

Alaska region fire management officer Chuck Russell, who is part of the US and Canadian contingent in NSW, said there's been a "sombre" mood among the firefighters since the crash.

"It doesn't matter whether you're a contractor, a Canadian, a New Zealander or an Australian, it hits hard when we lose one of our own," he told reporters on Friday.

"We know what we do is inherently dangerous but it doesn't happen that often thankfully."

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Investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will travel to the Peak View crash site on Friday to start collecting evidence.

The bureau expects to complete preliminary findings within a month.

US ambassador Arthur Culvahouse said he was "deeply saddened" by the news.

"The brave Americans who died near Snowy Monaro died helping Australia in its time of need," Mr Culvahouse said in a statement.

Worker try to put out a bushfire behind a row of factories near West Queenbeyan, 10km west of Canberra.
Worker try to put out a bushfire behind a row of factories near West Queenbeyan, 10km west of Canberra.
AAP

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne paid tribute to the US firefighters and said she had passed on Australia's condolences to Mr Culvahouse, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A NSW Rural Fire Service Large Air Tanker in action earlier this week.
A NSW Rural Fire Service Large Air Tanker in action earlier this week.
AAP

The three US firefighters and the three NSW firefighters who have also died battling fires this season will be remembered in a state memorial service on 23 February.

Police on Friday said they would contact the families of the plane crash victims before they release their names to the public.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Thursday's lethal conditions showed the unprecedented fire season was "far from over".

"We can't thank people enough for continuing, notwithstanding the conditions, to put their safety at risk to protect lives and property of others," she said.

Fire danger ratings are forecast to drop on Friday as milder weather conditions set in across NSW.

Probe into what went wrong

Investigators will begin piecing together the events that caused the C130 water tanker to crash in the Snowy Mountains.

"They (the crew) were highly experienced, professional, dedicated, specially-trained operators that were dedicated to the profession of aerial firefighting and, in particular, large air tanker aerial firefighting," Mr Fitzsimmons told ABC TV.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
AAP

"As we've seen here in NSW and in Australia in recent years, (it) has provided us with a capability and capacity that we historically have not had access to."

Mr Fitzsimmons labelled the C130 aircraft a "workhorse of the air" which could carry 15,000 litres of water and integrate with firefighters on the ground.

Investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will travel to the crash site on Friday to start collecting evidence.

The bureau expects to complete preliminary findings within a month.

A C-130 Hercules carrying out waterbombing operations.
A C-130 Hercules carrying out waterbombing operations.
rsf

"Should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant stakeholders so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken," the ATSB said.

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