C-130s cleared to fight fires

Posted: July 04, 2012

DENVER - Air Force tanker planes returned to the flight line for firefighting missions Tuesday after a deadly weekend crash, bringing much-needed reinforcements to a strained fleet battling some of the worst wildfires in decades.

The return of five C-130s means wildfire managers have 19 heavy tankers to battle the huge fires that have burned hundreds of square miles and displaced thousands of people across the West.

One wildfire in Montana has charred more than 290 square miles and burned 16 homes. The fire was 55 percent contained.

In Wyoming, erratic winds have spread a wildfire across 128 square miles in a sparsely populated area since it started June 27. It was only 10 percent contained.

"We've had this fire push north, push south, push east, and push west at various times," fire spokesman Jim Whittington said.

The Air Force had sidelined its seven remaining firefighting C-130s to review safety procedures after a C-130 from the North Carolina National Guard crashed Sunday, killing four crew members and injuring the two others.

The plane was helping fight a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The cause is under investigation.

The National Guard identified the dead as Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, 42, and Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, 36, both pilots; Maj. Ryan S. David, 35, a navigator; and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon, 50, a flight engineer. All were from North Carolina and assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing.

The injured crew members' names and conditions were not released.

The decision to suspend C-130 flights had left just 14 federally contracted heavy tankers in use during one of the most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates wildfire-fighting efforts nationwide, said 45 large fires were burning Tuesday, including 36 fires in nine Western states. In Colorado, three fires have destroyed more than 600 homes and killed six residents.

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