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Around 160 helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft are either currently working on or are on standby to provide firefighting support on Australia’s east coast, where the severity of bushfires just weeks into the start of summer are at unprecedented levels.
The country’s 2019-20 bushfire season intensified in September — the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere – when around 130 bushfires began ripping through the vegetation of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales (NSW). By mid-November, more than 70 bushfires had already triggered evacuations from Bundaberg down to the Gold Coast, with some fire attack operations occurring as far north as Cairns, in tropical Far North Queensland.
In NSW alone, bushfires have already burnt through 2.7 million hectares with a perimeter of 11,952 miles (19,235 kilometers) – an area almost twice the size of greater Sydney. Around 1,000 homes and other infrastructure have been destroyed and, tragically, six lives have been lost. However, despite these losses, air and ground fire crews have contributed to saving at least 5,000 properties.
The largest conflagration — dubbed the “mega fire” — at Gospers Mountain, about 100 kilometers north-west of Sydney, is likely to continue burning until substantial rain falls, which the NSW Bureau of Meteorology does not anticipate until at least the end of January 2020.
The bureau says the largest fires simply cannot be extinguished by aerial attack aircraft or firefighting crews on the ground. “The massive NSW fires are in some cases just too big to put out at the moment,” the bureau spokesperson said. “They’re pumping out vast amounts of smoke which is filling the air, turning the sky orange and even appearing like significant rain on our radars.”
Current weather forecasts are grim, with the weeks leading up to the festive season seeing continued high temperatures and strong winds expected.
The majority of the aircraft working on these fires are contracted by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre on behalf of Australia’s state and territory governments. They are supplemented by additional state owned and state contracted aircraft, which are called when needed to meet peak demand. In total, more than 500 aircraft, provided by over 150 operators, are available for firefighting across the country.
Making up the international support coming in from the U.S. and Canada this season are nine Type 1 helicopters, comprising six Erickson S-64E Air Cranes and three of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-61s. Plus, a number of Type 2 machines, including a pair of Timberline Helicopters’ UH-60A+ Black Hawks, and a number of Bell 205s, 212s and 412s from Wildcat Helicopters and Valhalla Helicopters.
On the ground, 21 firefighters from Canada recently arrived in Sydney to help relieve exhausted local crews across NSW. The Canadians have since been joined by another 21 firefighters from the U.S. This is the first time Canadian firefighters have been deployed to Australia under the Exchange of Wildland Fire Management Resources Agreement.
However, as the North American fire season extends later into its winter, it’s beginning to overlap the start of the Australian fire season, impacting the availability of helicopter and other fixed-wing firefighting assets that seasonally migrate Down Under. This is becoming a concern for fire services and operators who manage the sharing of these vital firefighting resources, with the realization that in future seasons some may not be available as scheduled.
Australia is beginning to follow suit of other countries with retired Australian Defence Force (ADF) machines now being sold or gifted to private operators for conversion into aerial attack and support assets. To bolster the regular supply of Type 2 firefighting helicopters year round, in June 2018 the Department of Defence announced it would gift the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) two ex-Australian Army S-70A-9 Black Hawks for aerial firefighting and remote area access support — and the aircraft would also be capable of conducting night time operations.
It was hoped these Black Hawks would have been converted into their new roles and available for this fire season. However, it is now expected that Defence will not release these helicopters to the RFS until 2022, due to a delay in the helicopters being withdrawn from active service. The transfer of ownership from the Australian Defence Force to the RFS is subject to country of origin export endorsement, and other necessary approvals.
Skyline Aviation Group, at Lake Macquarie Airport, on the NSW Central Coast, has procured 11 former Royal Australian Navy S-70B-2 Seahawks to be used for firefighting operations. Having retired from service in 2017, one of Skyline Aviation’s Seahawks has recently appeared on the civil register as VH-XHJ (formerly N24-002), and is reportedly nearing completion of its fit-out. It’s believed this will be the first Seahawk in the world to be converted into a helitack machine.
In February this year, Skyline Aviation displayed a Seahawk representative in a fire attack configuration at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon Airport, near Melbourne, equipped with the Australian-designed and -built Helitak Fire Fighting Equipment’s FT4500 Fire Tank.
Current serving ADF helicopters have been active above Queensland and NSW fires in recent weeks, supporting firefighter movements, air observers and civilian rescuers as requested. Two of the navy’s new MH-60R Seahawks from 816 Squadron have used their ISR cameras and sensors to assess and map fire movements, flying from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. each night. Other Navy assets include two 808 Squadron Airbus Helicopters MRH-90 Taipans, and two EC135s from 723 Squadron, both based at Nowra on the NSW south coast.
The Army School of Aviation, based at Oakey, west of Brisbane, has deployed two of its Airbus Helicopters Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) to conduct low level reconnaissance flights over fire-affected areas near Rockhampton after dark, utilizing the type’s thermal imaging camera and sensor suite. On Nov. 17, one of the Tiger ARHs aided in the support for the search of a group of people isolated in a high-threat fire area, who were then safely recovered. And two of the army’s 6 Aviation Regiment S-70A-9 Black Hawks out of Holsworthy Barracks, southwest of Sydney (incidentally the same fleet from where the NSW RFS machines will come from) have also been used for assessing and mapping the fires across both states.
A challenging environment
Given the conditions are extreme for pilots, fortunately there have only been two accidents during this season to date. In a week of scorching hot and windy conditions across southeastern Queensland, a Bell 214B collided with terrain on Nov. 13 while working on a blaze at Pechey, west of Brisbane. The aircraft was badly damaged and came to rest on its right side, while the pilot crawled out through an overhead window, walking away with minor injuries.
Then, on Dec. 7, a OAS Parts Bell UH-1H also collided with terrain while working to control a fire on the mid-north coast of NSW. According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), who are investigating this accident, the pilot detected a tail rotor issue and disconnected the bucket before conducting a precautionary landing. The helicopter landed hard, resulting in substantial damage. The pilot, the sole occupant on board, was uninjured. Firefighters on the ground contained a small grass fire that was sparked by the accident.
The bushfires along the east coast could have benefited from night-capable aerial attack helicopters if more were deployed. Following on from their first operational season last year, night attack capable helicopters are again deployed to work after dark, when the conditions are usually calmer. After an extensive practical trial early 2018, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority approved local company Kestrel Aviation and Coulson Aviation to undertake aerial fire suppression operations using NVIS to attack bushfires at night. Emergency Management Victoria currently remains the only state fire agency to use the night attack capability this season.
Australian Helicopter Industry Association president, Ray Cronin, said that the Queensland and NSW fires could have been tackled sooner by night-capable helicopters, and called for a national strategy for the use of night-capable helicopters.
“Fires don’t respect borders,” Cronin told The Australian newspaper in September. “There’s a lot of capability that’s out there and available to the agencies that is not being engaged for whatever reasons. There’s a need for planning and for pre-funding this.”
A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) spokesman also told The Australian that night-time aerial attack would not have added value to current operations. “Night-time waterbombing is a complicated activity. Current QFES policy does not support night-time waterbombing, however, it will assess the value of this activity in the future.”
The NSW RSFS also does not have regulatory authority to use helicopters for aerial attack at night.