Firefighting Tanker Planes Grounded

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The nation's firefighting fleet of heavy air tankers was grounded Friday following the second deadly crash in just over a month of a plane battling a wildfire in the West.

The National Interagency Fire Center decision affected about 40 planes with an average age of 42 years, center spokesman Jack deGolia said.

Also placed on a 24-hour stand-down were the lead planes that guide the heavy tankers to the fires, meaning modified Air Force cargo planes that have been aiding in fighting wildfires cannot fly, deGolia said.

"The purpose is to allow contractors to inspect planes and give crews some rest," he said.

Aircraft that carry smokejumpers, who parachute into burning areas and helicopters can continue to fly, he said.

The order followed Thursday's crash of a privately owned World War II-era PB4Y-2 Privateer that was contracted to the U.S. Forest Service.

It was the second time in as many months that a firefighting plane crashed, killing the firefighters aboard, and a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center said it's believed that the same company owned both planes.

CBS News Correspondent Lee Frank reports two people were killed in Thursday's crash, in northern Colorado. Witnesses say the plane appeared to break into pieces in the air, the wings collapsing, and then falling to the ground and starting a new fire.

The tanker, which was fighting the Big Elk Meadow wildfire about 45 miles northwest of Denver, crashed near Rocky Mountain National Park. Three air tankers, three helicopters and 80 firefighters were battling the fire.

Three more were killed on June 17, when a C-130A owned by the same company crashed after its wings snapped off near Walker, Calif.

The groundings could hamper efforts against the blaze, where steep terrain, high wind and even rattlesnakes had made aerial support the most effective firefighting technique Thursday.

"When we shut down the air tankers like this, we pretty much stop any aggressive action from taking place, with the exception of the minimal drops from helicopters," fire information officer Rick Dustin said.

Chris Pair was videotaping the wildfire when the plane crashed Thursday.

"I saw the plane breaking into pieces. I saw about three, maybe four pieces in flames go down," he told CBS affiliate KCNC-TV in Denver. Pair said the plane crashed about 300 yards from U.S. 36.

The fire, believed to be human-caused, was about 45 miles northwest of Denver on steep slopes accessible only on foot or by air.

Residents of 124 homes were ordered to evacuated for the second time in two days Thursday, and the fire was threatening as many as 300 homes, fire information officer Tammy Williams said.

"Things are readily igniting. The fire is obviously growing," she said. The flames were within one mile from the homes.