Tanker aircraft feared crashed fighting bushfires

Helicopters are searching to locate an air tanker feared to have crashed while fighting bushfires in Australia's alpine region, authorities said, as soaring temperatures and strong winds fanned blazes across the country's east.

Hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people since September last year, as well as an estimated 1 billion animals, while incinerating 2500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.

The New South Wales rural fire service said it was investigating an incident involving the tanker flying in the state's Snowy Monaro region, southwest of Sydney, on Thursday.

"Local ground crews indicate the aircraft may have crashed," it said in a statement. "A number of helicopters are in the area carrying out a search."

It was not immediately clear how many were on board the craft, which can typically accommodate between two and six.

Several ambulances and a helicopter were at the scene of the suspected crash, an emergency services source said.

Air tankers can carry thousands of litres of water or fire retardant to be released over fires, which can help contain blazes in areas ground crews find hard to reach.

Media said authorities lost contact with the air tanker in Peak View, a small rural town about 400km from Sydney.

Peak View is close to a blaze burning out of control in the Wadbilliga National Park, the fire service said.

The fire service did not immediately respond to requests for details. Media said the aircraft was a C130 waterbomber working near a large fire in a national park.

Belinda Greene, a receptionist at the Bredbo Inn Hotel near the suspected crash site, said she heard police cars racing by in the early afternoon.

"We saw a lot of smoke all of a sudden a couple of hours ago," she told Reuters by telephone.

Australian safety authorities said they were gathering further information on the incident.

Authorities have closed the airport in Canberra, the capital, as two emergency-level fires joined into a single out-of-control fire nearby.

Residents and businesses near fires were told it was too late to leave as thick plumes of dark smoke smothered the neighbouring suburbs. 

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