Air Force tanker planes were set to resume the fight against some of the most challenging wildfires in U.S. history Tuesday after four people died in a tanker crash over the weekend, the military said.
The North Carolina Air National Guard said four crew members died and two were injured in Sunday's crash while fighting a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Officials briefly grounded the seven specially equipped C-130s after the crash, putting 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 planes are under the U.S. Northern Command, which 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.
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.