Australia mourns for three Americans killed in plane crash fighting bushfires

MELBOURNE, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Australia was in mourning on Friday for three Americans killed when their plane crashed while fighting bushfires in the country's alpine region, as hot, windy conditions which had fanned flames a day earlier eased in the southeast.

The premier of the state of New South Wales (NSW) ordered flags to be flown at half staff on Friday as a mark of respect for the three victims, whose names have yet to be released.

The C-130 Hercules air tanker that crashed had been leased from Canadian aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, which said it was sending a team to the site to help with emergency operations. Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators are also due to arrive at the site on Friday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, due to give an update at 2130 GMT, said earlier it was still too soon to say what had caused the crash.

"The field reports indicated that there was a pretty significant fireball associated with the plane crash," Fitzsimmons said on Australian Broadcasting Corp TV.

He said the three men on board were in their 40s and were experienced aerial firefighters.

"Remarkable individuals, well-known, highly respected and regarded as part of the Coulsons Aviation family, operating here in Australia," Fitzsimmons said.

NSW firefighters continued to battle 83 blazes on Friday, however all of those were at the lowest warning levels.


Here are today's key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Temperatures eased and winds died down in New South Wales on Friday, with a high of 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 degrees Fahrenheit) for Canberra, where a fire burning on the eastern side of the capital forced the airport to shut for a few hours on Thursday. That fire is now under control, the Emergency Services Agency for the capital territory said.

* In Victoria, one out of 66 fires was rated at the warning level of "watch and act", meaning there was no immediate danger. (Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Sandra Maler)