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Fatal crash grounds wildfire aircraft


Critical firefighting aircraft have been grounded during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons to hit the US west after a military cargo plane crashed battling a South Dakota inferno.

The C-130 from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, North Carolina, was carrying a crew of six and fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills when it crashed on Sunday, killing at least one crew member and injuring others.

President Barack Obama offered thoughts and prayers to the crew and their families, saying: “The men and women battling these terrible fires across the West put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans.”

Seven other US Air Force aircraft were grounded after the crash, slashing the number of large air tankers fighting this summer's outbreak of wildfires by a third.

The military put the seven C-130s on an “operational hold”, keeping them on the ground indefinitely. That left 14 federally-contracted heavy tankers in use until investigators gain a better understanding of what caused the crash.

“You've basically lopped off eight air tankers immediately from your inventory, and that's going to make it tougher to fight wildfires,” said Mike Archer, who distributes a daily newsletter of wildfire news.

“And who knows how long the planes will be down?”

Mr Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's run-down aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of 24 million dollars (£15.4m), but the first planes will not be available until mid-August.

C-130 air tankers have crashed on firefighting duty before. In 2002, a privately owned civilian version of an older-model C-130 crashed in California, killing three crew members. The plane broke up in flight and an investigation blamed fatigue cracks in the wings.

The crash, in part, prompted a review of the airworthiness of large US air tankers and led ultimately to a greatly reduced fleet of large civilian tanker planes. The 44 planes in the fleet a decade ago has dwindled to nine being flown on US Forest Service exclusive use contracts right now.

Another aerial firefighting plane, the Lockheed P2V, has had some problems in recent months. One crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots, and another one crash-landed in Nevada.

A military spokesman said he did not know when the grounded planes would resume firefighting flights. They were used to fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.

The C-130s can be loaded with a device called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS. The system can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant within seconds through a modified side door towards the rear of the plane.

The military planes had been filling up with fire retardant and flying out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

The US Forest Service, which owns the MAFFS devices and co-ordinates the programme with the military, backed the decision to stand down the MAFFS.

But as a result, the Forest Service now will have to prioritise fires and the resources allocated to fight them, said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Centre in Boise, Idaho.

Fires threatening human life will be a top priority, followed by those threatening communities and community infrastructure, other types of property, and finally natural and cultural resources, she said.

The plane that crashed was fighting a fire about 80 miles south west of Rapid City, South Dakota. The terrain of the crash site is “very, very rugged, straight up and straight down cliffs”, said Frank Maynard, the Fall River County emergency management director.

Military officials declined to say whether anyone was killed, but they confirmed there were some crew members who were being treated for serious injuries at a hospital in Rapid City.

The family of Lt Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, North Carolina, said they were told early yesterday that he had died in the crash They said he was a 42-year-old married father of two and a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.