Firefighter killed in Australia was Hurlburt airman

Jordan Culver, Adrianna Rodriguez and Jordan Culver
USA Today
Walton Sun

The U.S. Air Force confirmed Senior Master Sgt. Rick DeMorgan, a flight engineer assigned to Hurlburt Field, was one of three American crew members who died in Australia after their aerial water tanker crashed while battling the country's devastating wildfires on Thursday.

The other casualties of the C-130 crash were Capt. Ian H. McBeth, 44, from Great Falls, Montana, and First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42, from Buckeye, Arizona, Coulson Aviation of Canada, a private company that fights fire around the world, confirmed in a press release.

According to the Air Force, DeMorgan, 43, was considered active duty, but he was on terminal leave awaiting retirement, and was working for a private company at the time of the incident.

"Our deepest condolences are extended to his family and friends throughout this trying time. Full active-duty considerations, entitlements, and resources will be provided to those who are impacted by this loss," the USAF said in a statement.

DeMorgan entered active duty in July 1995, according to the USAF, and logged more than 4,000 flight hours, including nearly 2,000 hours in a combat environment, according to Coulson Aviation.

A husband and father of two, DeMorgan was a Navarre resident whose "passion was always flying and his children," a statement from Coulson Aviation said. DeMorgan is survived by his wife Rebekah; his two children Lucas and Logan; his parents Rick Sr. and Linda; and his sister Virginia.

In a public Facebook post, his sister wrote that he was a beloved friend, colleague, father, son and brother. Citing a popular quote among aviators, she wrote, "for most the sky was the limit, to them it was home."

According to Coulson Aviation, McBeth "spent his entire career flying C-130’s," and was a former member of the Wyoming Air National Guard and an active member of the Montana Air National Guard. He was a husband and father of three children.

Hudson was a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marines who retired as a lieutenant colonel.

"At Coulson Aviation, we have the incredible job of fighting fires around the world and we take pride in this responsibility," the company said in a statement. "Right now, our hearts are with the crew’s family and friends and our Coulson Family suffering in the loss of these three remarkable and well-respected crew-members."

According to the company, the C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker departed from Richmond, New South Wales, and was on a firebombing mission in the Snowy Monaro area.

"We as a company are committed to supporting the families of our fallen heroes through this tragedy," Coulson Aviation said.

"Our crews in Australia are fully supported by the (Rural Fire Service) with their critical incident support personnel. Our crews on the other aircraft will be returning to work in the very near future as they are dedicated to the job we are required to do. We must continue to work with emergency services to protect local communities."

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said in a news conference Thursday that contact was lost with the aircraft a little before 1:30 p.m. local time, adding that there’s still no indication of what caused the crash.

“The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash,” he said.

The tragedy brings the death toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Twitter that flags will fly at half-staff Friday out of respect for the three U.S. firefighters who lost their lives.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she had conveyed Australia's condolences to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Culvahouse Jr.

“Our hearts go out to their loved ones. They were helping Australia, far from their own homes, an embodiment of the deep friendship between our two countries,” she said in a statement.

Coulson grounded other firefighting aircrafts as a precaution pending investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighboring Victoria state. The four-propeller Hercules drops more than 4,000 gallons of fire retardant in a single pass.

The Australian fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and scorched more than 25.7 million acres, an area bigger than Indiana.

Berejiklian said there were more than 1,700 volunteers and personnel in the field, and five fires were being described at an “emergency warning” level – the most dangerous on a three-tier scale – across the state and on the fringes of the national capital Canberra.

Contributing: The Associated Press. Pensacola News Journal reporters Annie Blanks and Kevin Robinson contributed to this report.