The death of three US firefighters who were battling bushfires in southern NSW when their air tanker crashed has been described as a “body blow” to the firefighting community.

The three men – seconded to Australia from the US – died after the C130 water tanker smashed into the ground 50km northeast of Cooma on Thursday afternoon.

The cause of the crash remains unclear.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the men, aged 42, 43 and 45, were highly experienced and dedicated to the “art” of aerial firefighting.

“It’s a body blow for everyone in the firefighting fraternity, in the community of NSW and further afield,” he told reporters in Sydney on Friday.

“It’s a confronting and sobering reminder of the enormity of the risk and challenge associated with this fire season and all the firefighting effort that goes along with it.”

Mr Fitzsimmons said he had spoken to Canada-based company Coulson Aviation which owned and operated the plane, known as Zeus.


The owners are due to fly into Sydney on Saturday and the families of the fallen men also expected to arrive in the city over the weekend.

Alaska region fire management officer Chuck Russell said there’s been a “sombre” mood among the firefighters since the crash.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a contractor, a Canadian, a New Zealander or an Australian, it hits hard when we lose one of our own,” he told reporters on Friday.

“We know what we do is inherently dangerous but it doesn’t happen that often thankfully.”

He said firefighters are part of a tight-knit community and would come together to help each other cope.

The three US firefighters and the three NSW firefighters who have also died battling fires this season will be remembered in a state memorial service on February 23.