COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The deadly crash of a military cargo plane fighting a South Dakota wildfire forced officials to ground seven other Air Force air tankers, removing critical firefighting aircraft from the skies during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.
The C-130 from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, N.C., was carrying a crew of six and fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota when it crashed Sunday, killing at least one crew member and injuring others.
President Barack Obama offered thoughts and prayers to the crew and their families. “The men and women battling these terrible fires across the West put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans,” he said in a statement.
The crash cut the number of large air tankers fighting this summer’s outbreak of wildfires by one-third.
The military put the remaining seven C-130s on an “operational hold,” keeping them on the ground indefinitely. That left 14 federally contracted heavy tankers available 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?” he said, adding that investigators will take time to make their conclusions.
A privately owned civilian version of an older-model C-130 has crashed on firefighting duty before. In 2002, three crew members were killed when their C-130A air tanker crashed in California. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts right now.
A military spokesman said he did not know when the grounded planes would resume firefighting flights.
U.S. Forest Service officials said they weren’t immediately prepared to comment on whether they have enough aerial firefighting assets without the C-130s. The military planes were filling up with fire retardant and flying out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
They were used to fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.
The plane that crashed was fighting a fire about 80 miles southwest of Rapid City, S.D. 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, N.C., said they were told early Monday 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.
“There were lives lost,” Lt. Col. Robert Carver of the North Carolina National Guard said at a news conference. “We are very grateful for the survivors and our thoughts and prayers and hearts go out to the families that have lost loved ones.”
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 toward the rear of the plane.
Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation’s rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million, but the first planes won’t be available until mid-August.
Among the major fires burning in the West Monday:
— Colorado: The 27-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire was 55 percent contained. The fire northwest of Colorado Springs killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 homes.
— Utah: Two new wildfires broke out on National Forest lands, one caused by target shooting, authorities said. In southern Utah, evacuations were ordered as the 500-acre Shingle fire threatened about 100 cabins.
— Montana: The 290-square mile Ash Creek fire jumped a state highway early Monday, triggering evacuations.
— Wyoming: Three large forest fires continued to spread as crews faced erratic winds and explosive fuel conditions.
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