CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A military cargo plane from North Carolina has crashed while fighting a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, killing at least one of the six crew members aboard and forcing officials to ground the fleet.
There was no official word on death or injuries, but the family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., confirmed they were notified early Monday that he had died in the C-130 crash on Sunday.
The 42-year-old married father of two was a veteran pilot who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Six crew members were aboard the C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte, N.C., said Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap. The plane crashed after dropping fire retardant Sunday, military officials said.
Seven other firefighting C-130s are being held on the ground because of the crash, which comes as states in the West are grappling with one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever.
"There were casualties, and our thoughts and prayers go out to those who were injured and those who lost their lives," according to a statement from Northern Command.
Fall River County, S.D., sheriff's officials told the Rapid City Journal three crew members were taken to a hospital. Military officials said they could not comment.
Mikeal's father-in-law, Ronald Partridge, said military officers came to the family's home at 2:30 a.m. Monday to inform them of the crash. Partridge said they were told only two crew members had survived.
Rescuers have reached the wreckage, authorities said. The terrain at the scene is "very, very rugged, straight up and straight down cliffs," said Frank Maynard, the Fall River County emergency management director.
Eight Air Force C-130s can be equipped to drop water or fire retardant. They're flown by Air Force National Guard units at Charlotte, Port Hueneme, Calif., and Cheyenne, Wyo., and a Reserve unit in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The planes can be fitted with a system of tanks and pipes called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System or MAFFS. It can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in seconds.
The planes can be activated for firefighting duty if the rest of the private and government firefighting fleet is in use or unavailable. When on firefighting duty, the planes are under the U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., which is responsible for defending the U.S. and assisting civilian authorities in emergencies.
All eight had been dispatched to Peterson last week to fight Colorado wildfires, including the 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire. That fire killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 houses. The fire was 55 percent contained.
The other seven C-130s are being kept on the ground under an "operational hold," said Northern Command spokesman Michael Kucharek. In aviation terminology, an operational hold is technically different from grounding but the effect is the same.
It wasn't immediately clear when they would resume work or what impact their absence would have on firefighting across the West.
Among the fires elsewhere in the West:
-- Utah: Fire commanders say Utah's largest wildfire has consumed more than 150 square miles and shows no sign of burning itself out. Hundreds of firefighters are trying to hold the Clay Springs fire from advancing on the ranching towns of Scipio and Mills on the edge of Utah's west desert. The fire has destroyed one summer home and threatens 75 others. The fire was 48 percent contained on Sunday.
-- Montana: More evacuation notices have been issued in the southeastern part of the state after a 265-square-mile wildfire jumped a highway overnight and was spreading to the southeast Monday. The state has 10 large wildfires, more than any other state.
-- Wyoming: Late Sunday night, authorities called for evacuations in an area of southern Albany County where a fast-growing wildfire was burning. The area is about 30 miles southwest of Laramie in the Medicine Bow National Forest area. It wasn't immediately clear how many residences are affected. The blaze is one of several burning through parched forest lands in Wyoming.
-- Idaho: Firefighters in eastern Idaho had the 1,038-acre Charlotte fire 80 percent contained Sunday but remained cautious with a forecast of high winds and hot temperatures that could put hundreds of homes at risk.
-- Nevada: More than 300 firefighters are battling a wildfire in a remote area of eastern Nevada. The 7,000 acre Egan Fire was burning about 9 miles south of the small town of Lund in the South Egan Wilderness.
-- New Mexico: A wildfire burning on the western border of Carlsbad Caverns National Park has grown to 5,000 acres. Officials said the fire is about five miles southeast of Queen and about a mile from the Carlsbad Caverns National Park boundary.