Australian air tanker feared crashed while fighting bushfires

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Helicopters were searching on Thursday for a C-130 Hercules air tanker feared to have crashed while fighting bushfires in Australia’s alpine region, authorities said, as soaring temperatures and strong winds fanned blazes across the country’s east.

FILE PHOTO: A television reporter stands in front of a Large Air Tanker (LAT) C-130 Hercules as it drops a load of around 15,000 litres during a display by the Rural Fire Service ahead of the bushfire season at RAAF Base Richmond Sydney, Australia, September 1, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

Hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people since September, as well as an estimated 1 billion animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.

The New South Wales (NSW) rural fire service said it was investigating an incident involving the tanker flying in the state’s Snowy Monaro region, south of the capital Canberra.

“Local ground crews indicate the aircraft may have crashed,” it said in a statement. “A number of helicopters are in the area carrying out a search.”

It was not immediately clear how many were on board the Lockheed-built four-engine turboprop, which can typically accommodate between two and six.

Flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed the flight path for an air tanker used in waterbombing operations suddenly stopping in Peak View, south of Canberra.

According to its flight data, the aircraft departed the Richmond air force base in western Sydney around 12:15 p.m. (0105 GMT). It dropped off radar just after 2 p.m.

Peak View is close to a blaze burning out of control in the Wadbilliga National Park, the fire service said.

Several ambulances and a helicopter were at the scene of the suspected crash, an emergency services source said.

Such air tankers typically carry 15,000 liters of water or fire retardant to be released over fires, which can help contain blazes in areas ground crews find hard to reach.

Belinda Greene, a receptionist at the Bredbo Inn Hotel near the suspected crash site, said she heard police cars racing by in the early afternoon.

“We saw a lot of smoke all of a sudden a couple of hours ago,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Australian safety authorities said they were gathering further information on the incident.

Authorities have closed the airport in Canberra, the capital, as two emergency-level fires joined into a single out-of-control fire nearby.

Residents and businesses near fires were told it was too late to leave as thick plumes of dark smoke smothered the neighboring suburbs.

Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Colin Packham and Byron Kaye in Sydney; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez

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