4 Killed In Crash Of Military Air Tanker

By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)
By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)

(CNN)-- Thousands of miles away from raging Western wildfires, North Carolina lowered its flags to half-staff Tuesday to honor four crew members of a U.S. military firefighting plane who were killed in a weekend crash.

The tanker crashed Sunday night in the Black Hills of South Dakota where it was dropping retardant on the White Draw Fire, the U.S. Northern Command said.

Six North Carolina National Guard members were on board the C-130, part of an eight-plane military fleet sent in to battle wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

Four of them died in the crash, said the National Interagency Coordination Center.

The military suspended firefighting operations after the deadly crash.

"The fleet will spend the day to get the MAFFS crews together to reflect, reset and review," said Col. Jerry Champlin, 153rd Air Expeditionary Group commander. "We all need to make sure our crews and planes will be ready to re-engage in the mission safely."

According to CNN affiliate WBTV, family members identified two of the crew members who died as Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal and Master Sgt. Robert Cannon.

On Saturday, a smiling Mikeal told reporters that he was looking forward to helping out in the effort to quell the growing fires.

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"It's very exciting. Adrenaline is flowing," Mikeal said. "We are ready to go. We have been watching the news and seeing everything that's going on out there. We have been waiting for the call."

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A hospital official at South Dakota's Rapid City Regional Hospital on Monday night said two other members of the crew were critically injured in the crash and identified one as Josh Marlowe.

Marlowe deployed to Afghanistan three times and has an 8-week-old son, Marlowe's stepmother, Kim Marlowe, told WBTV.

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Marlowe said her stepson's condition was improving at the hospital.

"He fought in so many wars and it is my faith that I know that God brought him through all that and will bring him through this," she said.

"I just want him to know that I love him, and we're praying for him to come back home. I'm just asking for people to pray for him and families that weren't as fortunate."

The blaze in South Dakota is one of several Western wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres across Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

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One of the worst has been the Waldo Canyon Fire, which last week roared down a mountain and razed nearly 250 homes in western neighborhoods of Colorado Springs.

Firefighters reported more gains Monday in their attempts to tame the inferno, saying they've stopped its growth and are working on putting out hot spots within its charred 17,920-acre footprint.

"It has not moved. Perimeter growth: nothing," incident commander Rich Harvey said Monday. "Now we're into the mop-up mode."

It was hopeful news for the 3,000 residents who remained under mandatory evacuation orders Monday.

"The focus is on getting people back into their homes as soon as possible," said Steve Cox of the Colorado Springs mayor's office. "In some cases, we're talking days, not weeks," he said.

Evacuation orders for all except the hardest hit areas were lifted by late Sunday for most of the 32,000 residents forced from their homes last week.

The most destructive fire in state history killed two people, destroyed 346 homes and damaged dozens more.

Photos: Wildfire photographer Kari Greer goes inside the inferno

The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the fire is fully under control. As of Monday evening, the fire was 70% contained.

All told, 52 active fires across the country have claimed 901,215 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

So far in 2012, the agency has tracked 27,176 fires that have burned nearly 1.9 million acres, the agency said.

In 2011, when wildfires raged across much of Texas, 35,574 fires burned 4.7 million acres, according to the agency.

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