DENVER - Air Force tanker planes will resume fighting some of the most challenging wildfires in U.S. history Tuesday after the deadly crash of one of its fleet over the weekend, the U.S. Northern Command said.
Officials briefly grounded the seven specially equipped C-130s after Sunday's crash in the Black Hills of South Dakota. At least two crew members died, and others among the six on board were seriously injured.
Grounding the planes put a third of the federally contracted heavy tankers out of service during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.
The Northern Command is responsible for the military defense of the U.S. homeland and assisting civil authorities during emergencies. The C-130s can be called into firefighting duty if all civilian heavy tankers are in use or unavailable. They can drop 3,000 gallons (11,300 liters) of water or fire retardant within seconds.
President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the aerial firefighting fleet at a cost of $24 million, but the first planes won't 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 crash, in part, prompted a review of the airworthiness of large U.S. air tankers and led ultimately to a greatly reduced fleet.
Military officials have released few details of the South Dakota crash but acknowledged some crew members were killed and others were being treated for serious injuries.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Tuesday that two people had died. He didn't identify either victim.
Among the major fires burning in the West:
- Colorado: The Waldo Canyon Fire that sent 30,000 people from their homes last week was 70 percent contained. The fire killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 homes.
- Montana: Critical fire conditions were expected Tuesday. The Ash Creek Fire was 55 percent contained after burning 16 houses. The Dahl fire was 95 percent contained after burning 73 homes.
- Wyoming: The Arapaho Fire was 10 percent contained after burning an undetermined number of structures. The Oil Creek Fire forced the evacuation of more than 400 people.
Associated Press writers Mead Gruver in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Paul Foy in Salt Lake City; Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho; Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, North Dakota, contributed to this report.