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Three American firefighting airplane crew member killed fighting fires in Australia

SYDNEY (AP) — Three American firefighting airplane crew members were killed Thursday when the C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker they were in crashed while battling wildfires in southeastern Australia, officials said.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed the deaths in the state’s Snowy Monaro region, which came as Australia grapples with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction.

Canada-based Coulson Aviation said in a statement that one of its Lockheed large air 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.

“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.

He said the crewmen were aged 42, 43 and 45.

We will be forever indebted to the enormous contributions and ultimate sacrifice that’s been paid by these extraordinary individuals,”

— Shane Fitzsimmons

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 10.4 million hectares (25.7 million acres), an area bigger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

The three were part of a crew on a California-based tanker, the governor of that state said in a statement on Thursday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom did not identify the crew members but called them heroes.

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Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.

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