COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) — Two crew members on a U.S. Air Force plane died in a weekend crash while trying to battle one of the Western wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres, family members said.
The C-130 aircraft crashed Sunday night while fighting the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota, the U.S. Northern Command said.
Military officials said there were casualties in the crash but gave no other information Monday. But family members told CNN affiliate WBTV that two members of the crew died in the crash and identified them as Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal and Master Sergeant Robert Cannon.
On Saturday, a smiling Mikeal told reporters that he was looking forward to helping out in the effort to quell the growing fires.
“It’s very exciting. Adrenaline is flowing,” Mikeal said. “We are ready to go. We have been watching the news and seeing everything that’s going on out there. We have been waiting for the call.”
A hospital official at South Dakota’s Rapid City Regional Hospital Monday night said two other members of the crew were critically injured in the crash and identified one as Josh Marlowe.
Marlowe has served in the war in Afghanistan three times and has an eight-week-old son, Kim Marlowe, Marlowe’s stepmother told the affiliate.
Kim Marlowe said his condition was improving at the hospital.
“He fought in so many wars and it is my faith that I know that God brought him through all that and will bring him through this,” Kim Marlowe said. “I just want him to know that I love him. and we’re praying for him to come back home. I’m just asking for people to pray for him and families that weren’t as fortunate.”
The blaze in South Dakota is one of several Western wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres across Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
Firefighters reported more advances Monday against the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado, saying they’ve stopped the fire’s growth and are working on putting out hot spots within its charred 17,920-acre footprint.
“It has not moved. Perimeter growth: nothing,” incident commander Rich Harvey said Monday. “Now we’re into the mop-up mode.”
It was hopeful news for the 3,000 residents who remained under mandatory evacuation orders Monday.
The focus is on getting people back into their homes as soon as possible, said Steve Cox, who is with Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach’s office.
“In some cases, we’re talking days, not weeks,” he said.
Evacuation orders for all except the hardest hit areas were lifted by late Sunday for most of the 32,000 residents who were forced from their homes after winds last week whipped the blaze that has been described as the most destructive in state history. The fire killed two people, destroyed nearly 350 homes and damaged dozens more.
The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the fire is fully under control. As of Monday evening, the fire was 70% contained.
The crash prompted the U.S. Air Force to ground all firefighting equipped C-130 planes. Including the one went down, eight such military planes had been deployed since June 24 to fight wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region — including in Colorado to combat the Waldo Canyon Fire — and thus are affected by the order, said National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.
All told, 52 active fires across the country have claimed 901,215 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
So far in 2012, the agency has tracked 27,176 fires that have burned nearly 1.9 million acres, the agency said.
In 2011, when wildfires raged across much of Texas, 35,574 fires burned 4.7 million acres, according to the agency.