3 U.S. firefighters killed in Australia air crash amid bush fires are identified

Coulson Aviation C-130 firefighting plane
A Coulson Aviation C-130, known as Tanker 134 based in Ramona, Calif., drops retardant on a California fire in 2019. Gov. Gavin Newsom has identified that plane as the one that crashed Thursday in Australia, killing all three U.S. crew members.
(Kevin Pack / K.E. Pack Photography)

An aviation company has identified the three U.S. crew members who died battling Australia‘s bush fires, after their California-based air tanker crashed in a rugged part of the country’s coastal mountains.

The C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker, owned by Coulson Aviation, crashed while flying in the Snowy Monaro region of southern Australia’s New South Wales state, officials said. It immediately set off a day of mourning among firefighters on both sides of the Pacific.

In a news release late Thursday, Coulson identified the three crew members as Capt. Ian H. McBeth, 44, of Great Falls, Mont.; First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42, of Buckeye, Ariz.; and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan, Jr., 43, of Navarre, Fla.

Prior to the identification of the firefighters, the U.S. Forest Service shared the news with its public information officers throughout Oregon and Washington at 11 a.m. Thursday via email.

“The wildland firefighting community is a family and when there is a loss it is felt throughout the entire organization,” it began. “We extend our deepest sympathy to the families of the fallen.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also issued a statement Thursday.

From L-R, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, Captain Ian H. McBeth, Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. were killed in Australia onboard a C-130 aircraft.
From L-R, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, Captain Ian H. McBeth, Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. were killed in Australia onboard a C-130 aircraft.
(Coulson Aviation )

“We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the crew, their friends and loved ones, and our own CAL FIRE family who worked, fought fires, and trained with the crew of Tanker 134,” the governor said. The plane that crashed in Australia was known as Tanker 134, which operated out of Ramona, Calif., during the 2019 fire season.

Australia is facing its worst wildfire season ever, with tens of thousands of acres burned and at least 32 people killed, including the U.S. crew on Thursday. Scores of aircraft have been contracted to help fight the blazes.

In Australia, what was supposed to be a gracious farewell for some American and Canadian firefighting crews on Friday morning instead became a more somber occasion punctuated with a moment of silence for those killed.

In New South Wales, Australians, Canadians and Americans joined together in a one-minute moment of silence for the three crew members.

McBeth was a military pilot who also served with the Wyoming Air National Guard and was a current member of the Montana Air National Guard while working for Coulson. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Hudson was a decorated Marine with 20 years of service who also flew C-130s for the Marine Corps. He retired as a lieutenant colonel before joining Coulson. He is survived by his wife.

DeMorgan was an Air Force pilot who served as a flight engineer on C-130s for 18 years. He had more than 4,000 hours of flight time and nearly 2,000 of those in combat. He is survived by his two sons.

The crew was working on an active fire in a difficult-to-access area of New South Wales, where the mountains stretch into the neighboring state of Victoria. It took hours for crews to locate the crash site.

There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Thursday. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the national air crash investigator, and state police will investigate the crash site, which firefighters described as an active fire site.

The plane was one of more than 70 in the air battling blazes in the state that afternoon, under conditions that Fitzsimmons described as very hot, dry and windy. “It was another very difficult, aggressive fire weather day which resulted in many of these fires spreading and breaking out,” he said.

Fire officials grounded all aircraft for the rest of the day following the crash. Fitzsimmons described the crew members as seasoned veterans, well known throughout the firefighting community and close with many of their colleagues.

“It is a confronting and sobering reminder of the inherent dangers and risks associated with firefighting as we’ve seen all too often unfortunately,” Fitzsimmons said.

The state’s fire danger rating for many affected areas was lowered Friday as light rain and cooler conditions began to spread over the southern coast, where many of the fires have originated. That, however, has also lowered a smoky haze onto Sydney. Of the more than 70 bush and grass fires burning in New South Wales, fewer than half were contained, officials said.

Coulson has been working fires in New South Wales for the last four or five years, Fitzsimmons said. The Rural Fire Service has purchased one of the company’s retardant-dropping 737 jetliners for its own fleet and contracted with the company to maintain and operate it, he said.

The fire service was also operating another 737 in New South Wales and a C-130 in Victoria, in addition to the aircraft that crashed Thursday.

Serna reported from Latrobe Valley, Australia, and Sahagun from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed to this report.