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C-130 firefighting air tankers grounded after fatal South Dakota crash

By the CNN Wire Staff
July 3, 2012 -- Updated 0031 GMT (0831 HKT)
A plane sprays fire retardant over wildfires raging in Colorado.
A plane sprays fire retardant over wildfires raging in Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: C-130 firefighting crews "reflect, reset and review" after crash, a colonel says
  • A military spokesman reports "lives lost" in a South Dakota crash, but not how many
  • The Air Force order affects 7 other C-130s equipped with firefighting equipment
  • A national fire spokesman says authorities will adjust and use other tools

(CNN) -- The U.S. Air Force is grounding all firefighting-equipped C-130 planes after the fatal crash of one in southwestern South Dakota, the military said Monday.

Air Force spokesman Todd Spitler announced that C-130s with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, won't fly until further notice. The South Dakota crash follows another crash of a non-military firefighing air tanker, along the Nevada-Utah border, several weeks earlier.

The Air Force describes MAFFS as "a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100-feet wide."

Including the one went down, eight such military planes had been deployed since June 24 to fight wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region and thus are affected by the order, said National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

This is out of hundreds of C-130s in operation around the world, and among dozens of helicopters, large air tankers and other aerial equipment that have and will continue to be used in battling fires. The grounded C-130 aircraft were unique in that they include "sliding tanks that can be inserted into an aircraft without major structural modifications," Jones said.

The Air Force decision to remove these aircraft from operation will force firefighting authorities to adjust, the spokeswoman said. That includes possibly altering strategy in combating the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, where C-130s were among the tools being used to corral what has been described as the worst wildfire in Colorado's history but is now 70% contained.

"(These crews) are highly trained and the best-equipped in the world," Jones said. "They have a lot of strategies and tactics."

Besides the tactical impact, Sunday's crash in South Dakota is taking an emotional toll as well.

Some North Carolina Air National Guard members died and others suffered serious injuries when their C-130 tanker crashed around 6:30 p.m. MT (8:30 p.m. ET), spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Carver said Monday. Their aircraft was operated by the state National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing and had been deployed to fight the so-called White Draw Fire burning near Edgemont at the time it went down.

Evacuee: Wildfire aftermath is 'kind of like the twilight zone'

"There were lives lost, there were injuries. We're very grateful for the survivors, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who have lost loved ones," Carver said, who did not specify how many people died in the crash.

President Barack Obama issued a statement Sunday saluting those killed and injured in the crash, as well as others who are helping fight blazes around the country.

"The airmen who attack these fires from above repeatedly confront dangerous conditions in an effort to give firefighters on the ground a chance to contain these wildfires -- to save homes, businesses, schools, and entire communities," Obama said. "They are heroes who deserve the appreciation of a grateful nation."

Those hurt are being treated in a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, according to Carver.

"You can't ask for people of higher character who go in harms way and volunteer to do so," he said.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

The South Dakota wildfire has scorched 4,200 acres since it began Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The fire, which is fueled by dry brush and trees, was 30% contained Monday -- threatening structures and prompting an unspecified number of evacuations.

That wildfire is one of many burning in western states, including Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

'Great day' as evacuations lifted, fight continues vs. Colorado fire

It was the second time within two months that an air tanker has crashed.

An air tanker crashed in mountainous terrain in western Utah on June 3, killing two pilots, authorities said.

That P2V air tanker was on its second run of the day fighting the White Rock Fire along the Nevada-Utah border. That fire, which began June 1, was 100% contained on June 9, fire officials said.

There had been no crashes of firefighting-equipped C-130s until Sunday's in South Dakota, with the U.S. Northern Command calling it the first crash "in the 40-year history of the MAFFS program."

Three state Air National Guards divisions -- California, Wyoming as well as North Carolina -- operate C-130s with firefighting capabilities, as does an Air Force Reserve unit out of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The technology the crews is are a "valuable" resource, though they are only deployed "when everything else is exhausted," according to Carver.

"When they put fire retardant down on the leading edge of the fire, it's very effective in keeping the fire from advancing," the lieutenant colonel said.

There's been no timetable given as to when the specially equipped C-130s might return to the skies.

The remaining crews spent Monday getting together to "reflect, reset and review," said 153rd Air Expeditionary Group commander Col. Jerry Champlin, according to a U.S. Northern Command press release.

"We all need to make sure our crews and planes will be ready to re-engage in the mission safely," said Champlin.

Colorado fire victim films her own evacuation

Obama tours site of deadly fire in Colorado

Photos: Wildfire photographer Kari Greer goes inside the inferno

CNN's Greg Botelho, Chris Lawrence and Maria White contributed to this report.

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