RENO " The order for a firefighting air tanker was canceled at around the time the plane crashed while taking off from an airport north of Reno, killing three, officials said Tuesday.
Marnie Bonesteel, spokeswoman with the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators, said the P2V aircraft had been dispatched to fight the Smitty fire in California's Calaveras County on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. But the tanker was no longer needed, and was recalled around the time it went down at 6:11 p.m., shortly after taking off from Reno-Stead airport.
All three crew members were killed. Names of the victims were withheld until relatives are notified.
"By the time those folks took off, they were canceled," Bonesteel said Tuesday.
The Smitty fire in West Point, Calif., was fully contained at 50 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Web site.
Another air tanker also sent to the Smitty fire was canceled while en route and returned to the airport in Minden, 50 miles south of Reno, Bonesteel said.
Bonesteel said the plane was under contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
The plane, owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., had made one flight over the Burnside fire south of Lake Tahoe on Monday morning and then returned to the Stead airport, where it remained through the day until the fatal crash.
"They were fully fueled and did have a full load of retardant as well," Bonesteel said.
Witnesses reported seeing what appeared to be a piece of engine or wing fall from the aircraft before it caught fire and crashed about a half-mile from the runway, authorities said.
Neptune Aviation Chief Executive Officer Mark Timmons said investigators were on their way Tuesday morning to the crash site.
"We don't have anybody on the ground yet," he said. "We don't have any questions answered at this point."
The P2V, originally developed by the Navy more than 50 years ago as a close-range bomber, has proven to be extremely reliable as an air tanker, Timmons said.
"I'm quite confident they are a safe platform," he said.
Each airplane has undergone an inspection that takes at least a month to conduct, following fears in 1994 about using older planes, Timmons said. He said ongoing inspections, which include annual X-rays to look for cracks, is more intensive than those done on passenger planes.
Monday's crash marked at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune suffered a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.
Timmons said those previous crashes were found to be caused by pilot error.
"It is a dangerous business," he said. "We try to do as much as we can to decrease that amount of danger, but it is a dangerous business. There are risks in it."
The crash near Reno sparked a two-acre brush fire that was quickly extinguished. Washoe County sheriff's deputies cordoned off the site overnight and were awaiting the arrival of investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Burnside fire in California's scenic Hope Valley forced the evacuation of campgrounds, two mountain retreats and about 20 homes on Sunday. Evacuation orders were lifted Monday afternoon, and the fire, estimated at 200 acres, was 50 percent contained on Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb in Reno and Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.