‘Utterly devastated’: Three fire-mappers die in Qld plane crash

Firefighters are battling blazes threatening residents to the south of Perth.

Firefighters are battling blazes threatening residents to the south of Perth. Photo: AAP

Three “dearly loved” crew members who died when a fire surveillance plane crashed in remote northwest Queensland worked for a Victorian aviation company.

The aircraft was conducting line scans and travelling from Toowoomba to Mt Isa when it crashed near Cloncurry on Saturday afternoon.

Workers at a nearby Eloise Copper Mine at McKinlay raised alarm at about 2.30pm. A rescue helicopter crew spotted the wreckage and officers arrived on the scene at about 5pm, confirming all three on board had died.

The plane was operated by Victorian-based aerial firefighting company AGAIR, which has a fleet of fire bombers.

“Three of our valued, and dearly loved staff were the only occupants of the aircraft, and there were no survivors,” CEO Rob Boschen told AAP.

“We are utterly devastated, and our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the families of our staff.”

Their families have been notified but Queensland Police say it could be days before they are formally identified.

Specialists from the Disaster Victim Identification Unit and investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau are due to arrive at the remote site on Monday.

The ATSB’s Colin McNamara said the organisation is still working through the logistics to deploy its full team to the accident site.

“I do not anticipate the ATSB team will take control of the site until mid-next week. We have to allow forensic specialists to do their job first,” he said.

He said the team is expected to be on the site for around five days and will examine the role the plane had in fighting fires in the area.

Completely destroyed

“It is important to note, given this aircraft has been involved in Australia’s firefighting efforts more broadly, that if the ATSB identifies a critical or a significant safety issue, that may impact broader fire-fighting operations, we will immediately bring that to the attention of the relevant authorities so they can act upon it,” he added.

Queensland Police Superintendent Tom Armitt said the plane had been completely destroyed by fire and was in hard-to-reach terrain.

“We really feel for the families of the victims … we know who was on the plane,” he told reporters on Sunday.

“We can’t provide any technical answers as to why this has occurred, we will do our best to provide a thorough investigation to the coroner and hopefully answer those questions.”

An Aero Commander like the one in which three firefighters lost their lives. Photo: Gulfstream

Police said a rescue helicopter crew spotted the wreckage and directed officers on the ground through rough terrain to reach the crash site about 5pm.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Fire and Emergency Services Minister Mark Ryan released a statement on Saturday night expressing their sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues of the crew.

The three had been playing a critical role in saving lives and protecting property by their intelligence and mapping work from the air to help firefighters on the ground, they said.

Bravery and service

“I am terribly saddened by what has happened,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“The crew on board this aircraft have been doing everything they could to protect Queenslanders.

“I send my heartfelt condolences to the many people who have been impacted by this shocking incident.”

Mr Ryan said the tragedy would hit the aerial firefighting teams hard.

“So many of them know each other, work together, dedicate themselves to the same goal, to keep everyone safe,” he said.

QFES also offered its condolences to the crew members’ families.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families at this time,” it said in a statement.

QFES said the aircraft that crashed was the same type as one that is used as the lead plane for the large aerial tanker (LAT), used to fight bushfires.

“Both the LAT and the lead plane will be grounded until advised by authorities.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese praised the firefighters’ bravery.

“All Australians’ thoughts are with the family, friends, and all who know the brave firefighters who’ve lost their lives as a result of the fatal air accident that occurred in North Queensland,” he said on Saturday evening while on a visit to China.

“We know the people who fight fires and stand up in emergency services, risk their lives, each and every day to assist their fellow Australians, and to assist the communities,” Mr Albanese said.

“Today our hearts go out to them.”

The Australian Transport and Safety Bureau said a team of investigators from Brisbane were preparing to travel to the accident site.

A preliminary report is anticipated in about six to eight weeks, the ATSB said.

Queensland Police are also investigating and will prepare a report for the coroner.

Fires threaten homes in WA

Bushfires are threatening homes south of Perth as high temperatures and strong winds fan the flames.

Evacuation centres have been set up at the Mandurah Aquatic and Recreation Centre and Murray Aquatic Centre, with multiple emergency warnings in place.

In nearby North Dandalup homes on Reides Rd are expected to be affected by fire.

“There is a threat to lives and homes. The alert level for this fire has been upgraded as fire conditions are increasing in the area,” an Emergency WA alert read.

Residents are urged to head to the evacuation centre in Mandurah if they can safely leave.

The fire warning areas have spread rapidly on Saturday afternoon as crews battle strong winds and high heat.

A third fire burning at emergency level near Mandurah is in the southern part of Serpentine, with another to the west at Jarradale at “watch and act” level.

To the north residents in the city of Armadale have been told to seek shelter from a fire in Piara Waters.

WA’s ordeal by fire

Extreme fire danger is forecast for the Swan Inland regions, as well as further afield in the inland central west, lower west inland and Mortlock regions.

About 100 blazes are still burning across Queensland and NSW after a torrid week claimed more than 60 homes and thousands of hectares of farming land either side of the border.

Mild conditions are expected this weekend over the hardest-hit areas including Tara west of Brisbane and the southern border town of Wallangarra.

About 130 Victorian firefighters have arrived with another 60 expected from New Zealand and more potentially from overseas to relieve local crews.

Residents in the Jumna Dam area of Irvinebank in the southeast have been told it’s not safe to return to the area after a fire took hold about 8am.

Fire vehicles stolen

Meanwhile, Queensland police are searching for two fire vehicles stolen from RFS facilities in the state’s north.

The first went missing from Sarina on Tuesday night when a group of people broke into a building, took the keys and drove off in the vehicle.

Another firefighting vehicle was stolen from an RFS facility in Victoria Plains, also in the Mackay area, on Saturday morning.

The vehicle is a black Nissan utility with Victoria Plains Rural Fire printed on the side.

Police said it has since been seen in the Sarina area.


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