An air tanker hoping to drop retardant on a wildfire in the Sierra Nevada crashed on takeoff near Reno on Monday, killing all three crew members on board.

The twin-engine P2V air tanker owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., had been fighting a wildfire earlier in the day that had forced evacuations over the weekend in California's Alpine County near Hope Valley south of Lake Tahoe, Reno fire spokesman Steve Frady said Monday night.

Names of the three confirmed dead in the crash had not been released, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Preliminary reports from witnesses suggested the tanker lost a piece of its engine or a wing after its 6:11 p.m. takeoff from Reno-Stead Airport before it caught fire and went down about a half-mile away, he said.

The crash started a small brush fire that local crews extinguished, Frady said. He said the debris field from the crash covered approximately 5 square miles northwest of the airport northeast of U.S. Highway 395.

"It was full of fuel and retardant and had been on the Hope Valley fire and apparently was headed back to make one last drop," Frady told The Associated Press.