Thousands of miles from raging Western wildfires, North Carolina lowered its flags to half-staff Tuesday to honor four crew members of a U.S. military firefighting plane who were killed in a weekend crash.
The tanker crashed Sunday night in the Black Hills of South Dakota where it was dropping flame retardant on the White Draw Fire north of Edgemont, the U.S. Northern Command said.
Six North Carolina National Guard members were aboard the C-130, part of an eight-plane fleet battling wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres.
The four fatalities were National Guard members, said the National Interagency Coordination Center. They were identified as Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, 42, of Mooresville, N.C.; Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, 36, of Belmont, N.C., Maj. Ryan S. David, 35, of Boone, N.C.; and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon, 50, of Charlotte.
The identities of the two survivors, who were in critical condition, were not released. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
The military suspended its aerial firefighting operations after the crash to review flying and safety procedures, but said it was resuming operations Tuesday.
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 said Monday that two other members of the crew were critically injured in the crash and identified one as Josh Marlowe.
Marlowe deployed to Afghanistan three times and has an 8-week-old son, Marlowe's stepmother, Kim Marlowe, told WBTV.
Marlowe said her stepson's condition was improving.
"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," she 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 scorched thousands of acres across Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
One of the worst has been the Waldo Canyon Fire, which last week roared down a mountain and razed nearly 350 homes in western neighborhoods of Colorado Springs.
Firefighters reported more gains Monday, saying they had stopped the fires' growth and were working on putting out hot spots within its charred 17,920-acre footprint.
A day later, the fire had not budged, said Tim Johnson, a public information officer with the interagency management team. "That's still the acreage, and a containment of 70%," he told CNN in a telephone interview. "By the end of the day, I would expect that number to increase."
Of the 32,000 people who were evacuated, 30,000 will have been allowed to return home by 6 p.m. Tuesday, leaving 2,000 still shut out, he said. "Sadly, about half of those, of course, are to homes that are no longer there."
The cost of fighting the fire has exceeded $12 million, he said, adding that estimates of the replacement cost for the homes destroyed exceed $103 million. In all, 1,581 personnel were fighting the fire, he said.
The most destructive fire in state history, it killed two people, destroyed 346 homes and damaged dozens more.
The U.S. Forest Service has warned it could be mid-July before the fire is fully controlled.
So far in 2012, the agency has tracked 28,420 fires that have burned nearly 2.2 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.