A pilot with Colorado ties was killed Thursday when an American tanker plane crashed while fighting Australian wildfires.

The crash of the C-130 Hercules tanker in New South Wales state killed Capt. Ian H. McBeth, 44, of Great Falls, Montana. McBeth was a 1994 graduate of Wray High School in northeastern Colorado, according to a tweet Thursday night from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

“My deepest sympathies go out” to his family, Polis tweeted, adding that McBeth had volunteered to travel to Australia during an unprecedented wildfire season that has left a large swath of destruction in Australia’s southeast.

McBeth “was a highly qualified and respected C-130 pilot with many years fighting fire,” including during his time in the military, the men’s employer, Canada-based Coulson Aviation, said in a statement.

McBeth, who is survived by his wife and three children, also served with the Wyoming National Guard and was a member of the Montana National Guard at the time of his death, the company said.

Capt. Ian McBeth. Photo Courtesy of Couison Aviation
Capt. Ian McBeth. Photo Courtesy of Couison Aviation

Coulson Aviation identified the other two crew members as First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42, of Buckeye, Arizona; and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr., 43, of Navarre, Florida.

The tanker had just dropped a load of retardant on a fire before it went down, investigators said Friday.

Specialist investigators were sent to the crash site in the state’s Snowy Monaro region and a team was working to recover the victims’ bodies, Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Greg Hood told reporters in the nearby town of Numeralla.

He described a difficult process of securing evidence of the crash and the victims’ remains, since the wildfire is still burning and potential hazards such as aviation fuel are present.

About 500 firefighting aircraft from several countries are fighting Australia’s wildfires, Hood said, adding, “If there are lessons to be learned from this particular accident, it’s really important that not only Australia learns these, but the world learns them.”

He and other Australian officials extended condolences on the deaths of the three Americans.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said a memorial service would be held in Sydney on Feb. 23 for the American firefighters and three Australian volunteer firefighters who have died during this wildfire season.

“We will pay tribute to the brave firefighters who lost their own lives protecting the lives and properties of others,” she said.

“I know that many members of the public, the RFS (Rural Fire Service), and emergency services personnel will want to come together as families and communities work their way through this unbelievable loss.”

The three deaths brings Australia’s 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, an area bigger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

Coulson grounded other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 15,000 liters of fire retardant in a single pass.

Berejiklian said more than 1,700 volunteers and personnel were in the field, and five fires were being described at an “emergency warning” level — the most dangerous on a three-tier scale — across the state and on the fringes of the national capital Canberra.

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