VANCOUVER -- Three Americans have died after a B.C.-owned water bomber crashed in Australia while being used to put out fires.

The aerial water tanker – a C-130 Hercules – had been in Australia since August, it was leased to the Australian government by the Coulson group, which is based in Port Alberni, B.C.

The plane crashed Thursday after leaving the community of Richmond, Australia.

The Rural Fire Service lost contact with the plane about an hour and a half later. The crash site is about 50 kilometres northeast of the small town of Cooma, in a still-active fire zone.

"We will forever be indebted to the enormous contribution and indeed the ultimate sacrifice that's been paid as a result of these extraordinary individuals doing a remarkable job," NSW Rural Fire Service Comm. Shane Fitzsimmons said on Friday.

The company's president, Britton Coulson, told CTV News Vancouver Island earlier this month that Coulson had "pretty much all" of its aircraft in Australia as part of the firefighting effort, including two C-130s.

Coulson added that the company sends aircraft to Australia every year as part of a long standing agreement.

The mayor of Port Alberni, Sharie Minions, says the company is a big part of the community.

"It's always traumatizing to hear the news of a plane crash anywhere, and then to see it's a local company really hits close to home," Minions said. "We are really proud of what the Coulson group is doing. They are really leading the way in the firefighting aviation industry. This community is very proud what they're doing."

As a precautionary measure, Coulson has grounded other firefighting aircraft in both New South Wales and Victoria while an investigation is pending.

New South Wales Police say three American men – aged 42, 43 and 45 – are believed to have been on board at the time of the crash; however, they are yet to be formally identified.

With files from CTV News Vancouver Island