3 Americans killed in crash of water tanker plane fighting Australian wildfires

The plane went down while battling wildfires in New South Wales.

Three Americans were killed while battling the Australian wildfires on Thursday when their water tanker plane crashed in New South Wales.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker went down in the Snowy Mountains' Monaro region, about 400 miles east of Melbourne, according to officials with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS).

The aircraft was performing normal firebombing activities, dumping water on one of an estimated 80 blazes burning in that area, officials said. Conditions were reported to be hot, dry and windy in the region that day.

The plane was being operated under contract to the RFS but was owned by Coulson Aviation, a private Canadian firm that helped battle the California wildfires last year.

Coulson Aviation issued a press release on Friday identifying the three crew members who died as Capt. Ian H. McBeth, 44, of Great Falls, Montana, who is survived by his wife and three children; First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42, of Buckeye, Arizona, who is survived by his wife; and flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan, Jr., 43, of Navarre, Florida, who is survived by his two children.

"At Coulson Aviation, we have the incredible job of fighting fires around the world and we take pride in this responsibility. Right now, our hearts are with the crew's family and friends and our Coulson Family suffering in the loss of these three remarkable and well-respected crew members," the company said in a statement Friday, adding that it is "committed to supporting the families of our fallen heroes through this tragedy."

The RFS grounded all other firefighting aircraft on Thursday immediately following the crash.

"Today is a stark and horrible reminder of the dangerous conditions that our volunteers and our emergency services personnel across a number of agencies undertake on a daily basis," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at a press conference after the accident. "It demonstrates the dangerous work currently being undertaken and it also demonstrates the conditions that our firefighters are working under."

Officials with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau announced Thursday that they were deploying a team of investigators to the crash site to collect data related to the accident. The bureau said it would release a preliminary report on the cause of the crash in 30 days.

Australia's devastating wildfires have claimed more than 15 million acres of land and resulted in at least 25 deaths, according to authorities.

ABC News' Will Gretsky, Marilyn Heck and Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.

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