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A C-130 makes a drop on the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 26. The Air Force on July 3 announced it will resume C-130 firefighting operations, two days after a C-130 tanker crash in South Dakota killed at least two service members. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via AP)
Air Force C-130s will be back in the air Tuesday to fight forest fires in the western U.S., two days after one of the aircraft crashed in South Dakota, reportedly killing four airmen.
Operations were suspended Monday to review safety and flying procedures following the crash, according to U.S. Northern Command.
The C-130 that crashed Sunday was with the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing, based at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
NORTHCOM has confirmed that some of the crew were killed in the crash but has not released their names yet.
Media reports have identified three of the airmen killed as Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, Master Sgt. Robert Cannon and Joe McCormick. A fourth crew member is in a South Dakota hospital with serious injuries, according to reports.
An investigation into the crash is ongoing.
On Monday, President Obama offered condolences to the airmen killed in the C-130 crash.
"The men and women battling these terrible fires across the west put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Americans," Obama said. "The airmen who attack these fires from above repeatedly confront dangerous conditions in an effort to give firefighters on the ground a chance to contain these wildfires — to save homes, businesses, schools, and entire communities. They are heroes who deserve the appreciation of a grateful nation."
Each year, there are an average of 78,000 forest fires in the U.S., which burn a total of 6.5 million acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
"Because of the extreme challenges presented by flying slow, low and heavy, only the most experienced C-130 aircrews train for this mission," according to an Air Force news release from April.
The high winds, thick smoke and mountainous terrain makes firefighting efforts even more challenging, said Maj. Neil Harlow, a pilot with the Wyoming National Guard's 187th Airlift Squadron.
Crews had been forced to drop fire retardant at 10,000 feet, much higher than the normal drops, which are usually made at 8,000 feet, Harlow told Air Force Times last week.
"The conditions couldn't be worse for aircraft," Harlow said. "We have high-pressure altitudes in excess of 10,000 feet just for takeoffs. We're fully loaded with slurry and fuel. It makes it extremely difficult to get the plane to perform for you."