updated 9/2/2008 9:25:59 AM ET 2008-09-02T13:25:59

An air tanker being used to drop retardant on a wildfire in the Sierra Nevada crashed after taking off for its last flight of the day, killing all three crew members.

Preliminary witness reports suggested the aircraft had lost part of one engine or a wing after taking off from Reno-Stead Airport, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane went down about a half-mile from the airport and burst into flame, Reno fire spokesman Steve Frady said.

The twin-engine P2V air tanker owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., was being used Monday to fight a wildfire that had forced evacuations during the weekend in California's Alpine County near Hope Valley south of Lake Tahoe, Frady said.

"It was full of fuel and retardant and had been on the Hope Valley fire and apparently was headed back to make one last drop," Frady told The Associated Press.

It was at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune was involved in a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.

Officials of Neptune did not immediately return a call seeking comment late Monday.

Investigators for the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were on their way to the scene, officials said.

The plane that crashed Monday was built in 1962 as an anti-submarine bomber for the Navy, officials said.

The fire south of Lake Tahoe had covered about 150 acres and was estimated to be 30 percent contained late Monday.

Names of the victims had not been released.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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