Australian bushfires: aerial response from firefighters

erickson s64 air crane
Going above and beyond

Firefighters and military aid in Australia and beyond have come together to bravely fight the Australian bushfires. Mandy Langfield investigates

At least 34 lives have been lost – firefighters among them – to the bushfires of late 2019 and early 2020. In addition, an estimated 46 million acres has been burnt, close to 6,000 buildings destroyed and one billion animals killed. These numbers are still, in part, rising.

AirMed&Rescue spoke to NSW Rural Fire Service firefighter James Koens about his experiences in fighting fires during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season. He said: “Veteran firefighters of over 30 years report having never experienced fire behaviour so intense and erratic, making these fires impossible at times to predict. We have seen fires this season that do not even touch the ground. Fires race through the treetops with a sound not too dissimilar to a freight train at full speed.” One of the issues making this year’s fires so hard to manage is the months-long drought that preceded them. “Australia is seeing one of its greatest droughts on record, soil so dry you feel like you’re walking through foot-high snow, trees dying at rates never seen before, wildlife literally falling out of the tree tops or mid-flight due to the scorching summer temperatures,” Koens explained. “The fire will burn for weeks underground through root systems that otherwise might have been extinguished by the damp soil.”

bushfire australia

A global effort

International aid efforts have been forthcoming, with firefighting crews from California, US, and elsewhere deployed to hard hit areas.

Six Erickson Air Cranes were deployed across the country: two in New South Wales, two in Victoria, one in South Australia and one in Western Australia. Each aircraft has a total crew of six at any one time, consisting of three pilots and three mechanics. There are a total of 12 crewmembers assigned to the aircraft because of the equal time on/off shift schedule, which is three weeks on, three weeks off. A statement from the crews operating the aircraft read: “What keeps us going is the support and thanks of the rural communities of Australia. Every day, people come to look at the Air Crane and thank us for our efforts and commitment to fighting the fires alongside what can only be called the best fire service in the world, the Australian Volunteer Fire Service.”

Alex Woolsey, Director of Fire for Erickson, commented: “This season is unprecedented; the amount of fire activity has been well above anything we have seen in recent years past.

We have flown almost three times more than our seasonal average over the last three or four seasons

We have flown almost three times more than our seasonal average over the last three or four seasons. I would say there is also a lot more media and global attention this year that ever before. It’s common to see / hear about fires in California but the amount of global attention on Australia this season is new.”

Coulson Aviation was contracted by the NSW Rural Fire Service to conduct waterbombing in Australia, and was carrying out daily firebombing. Tragically, on 22 January, three crewmembers died after their C-130 crashed while on a mission in the Snowy Monaro area. Captain Ian McBeth, 45, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 43, and Flight Engineer Rick A DeMorgan Jr, 44, were killed. The cause of the crash is yet to be determined. “There is no indication at this stage of what’s caused the accident,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzimmons. Wayne Coulson, Coulson Aviation CEO, flew to Australia and visited the crash site days later. In a press conference, he said: “These pilots were valued members of our firefighting family. They were known all around the world for their skill and experience in aerial firefighting and in the C-130 military world.” The fatalities were three of six firefighting deaths in NSW during this Australian firefighting season, and more firefighters have died across Australia.

Among the other foreign military assets that were sent to assist with the bushfires were two Republic of Singapore Air Force Chinooks. The helicopters took off from Oakey in Western Australia with 42 SAF personnel, comprising pilots, aircrew and engineers, and headed to Victoria. Tasked primarily with firefighting efforts, the aircraft also transferred relief supplies and helped to evacuate residents. Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said at the time: “As a small city state, it’s hard for us to imagine the massive scale of the destruction wrought by the bushfires in Australia. Australia has welcomed SAF troops to train there for decades, and in their time of great need, it’s only natural that the SAF do our best to help their people and communities affected by this unexpected disaster.”

Commenting on what the aerial firefighting crews have been facing in Australia, Erickson’s Woolsey said that the primary challenge has been the pure pace of operations. “The high volume of fire activity has led to a lot of flying. This puts pressure on the pilots and the mechanics. Additionally, we have been operating away from the nominated operating bases. The aircraft are being operated out of remote locations and are often in a different location daily / nightly as they chase the fire down. This makes the logistics behind supporting the aircraft very complex – it included needing to arrange for crew accommodation at different spots each night. We also have limited space in our support vehicles to carry all the necessary parts, tools and equipment needed for maintenance so we have to constantly co-ordinate deliveries and resupplies between the remote locations and where the aircraft and our support equipment are based.”

747 fire fighting

Koens spent a decade in the Australian military and latterly on Sydney’s Ambulance Rescue Helicopter, as well as his current role an Aircrewman Instructor supporting NSW and Australia’s Capital Territory. He is well placed to discuss the value of aerial assets in firefighting. He told AirMed&Rescue: “As an aviator myself, I feel like I may be a little biased, but as a ground-based firefighter I can say without a doubt, aerial firefighting assets save lives and homes.” He recounts a story in which an Air Crane doused a fire truck right before it went up in flames, saving the crew inside. “At times, it might seem and feel like some aircraft are spitting in the face of the fire, but all they have to do is save one life and they’ve paid for themselves,” he said.

effective management of aircraft assets is key to ensuring they are being used to their optimum advantage

The effective management of aircraft assets is key to ensuring they are being used to their optimum advantage, and Koens sees some opportunities for them to be used in different ways to their current operations. He explained more: “Ideally, what could be done more, is an experience I took from my time in the military. We used a device, much like a tablet device, that linked into any compatible coalition aircraft or drone, allowing us on the ground immediate access to the aircraft’s optics, not to control, but to observe. I believe something like this tied into a number of our firefighting aerial platforms would give crews on the ground a bird’s-eye view of where the fire is, and more importantly, what it’s about to do.”

© Erickson air crane

© Erickson

Politics play their part

The Australian Government’s response to the bushfires has received a mixed response, with many claiming that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response has not been commensurate with the damage caused. Although he was not in government at the time, it has been brought up that in 2016, the authorities rejected a proposal to purchase a national large air tanker fleet from the NAFC. At the time, the NAFC told a Senate enquiry into bushfires in Tasmania: “Firefighters are likely to face extended, hotter fire seasons in the future, with more days of extreme fire danger. Along with changing demographics and land use pattern, this is likely to increase demand for aerial firefighting resources. A shared, national large fixed-wing air-tanker capability is logical and is an attractive strategy.” Although the Senate then backed the proposal, it was dismissed by the government in September 2017, responding with the statement: “The Australian Government does not support this recommendation, noting that bushfire responsibility is a matter for each state and territory.”

The NAFC received AU$15 million each year towards its firefighting efforts, which was supplemented in 2018 and 2019 by an additional $11 million each year. Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner, believes that the government should be committing $25 million annually, rather than offering supplementary payments in December once temperatures rise. He added: “The Prime Minister keeps saying that whatever the fire chiefs request, they get, but that’s not true. The business case has been on the desk for two years. Had the fire chiefs had certainty with the $25 million, we would have more aircraft in the sky.” He has also appealed to the Prime Minister to ask for more help from international allies. Speaking to ABC Radio Sydney, he said: “The government should be proactive and I believe that what our Prime Minister should be doing is ringing around countries like France, Portugal, Spain, Canada that have all these purpose-built water-scooping aircraft that don’t need to land to fill up so they’ve got rapid turnaround, they’ve got 6,000L, that practical sort of thing.”

Fundamental funding

On 8 January, as fires continued to burn across the country, Morrison agreed to permanently increase funding to the NAFC by $11 million per year, and also pledged that $20 million would immediately be made available to lease four extra planes – two DC-19s and two medium-range large air tankers – to supplement the fleet.

While the NSW Rural Fire Service is a volunteer-based organisation, it nonetheless requires significant funding to run smoothly. With over 72,000 volunteers and 2,000 brigades, it’s no small fry. According to Koens, contrary to popular belief, the Service has the largest budget it has ever had at $1.6 billion. He told AirMed&Rescue: “Although it sounds like a lot of money (which it is!) it is still stretched between the personnel listed above, over 100 aircraft during the fire season and countless fire vehicles. The brigades and personnel are equipped with all the necessary items to fight fires, but some brigades choose to do more than that, and through donations and grants can do exactly that. These monies go towards such things as thermal imaging cameras to spot fires in wall cavities or underground root structures, or mobile data tablets like iPads to improve response times through mapping software and increase safety through hazard identification and dissemination.”

© Erickson

Developments in tech

New technology could soon be deployed that would aid efforts to fight fires not just in Australia, but all over the world. In 2020, Erickson has committed to focus on innovations and developments to the S-64 Skycrane that will continue to innovate how the aerospace market fights fires. Alex Woolsey gave AirMed&Rescue more details about work the company is undertaking to advance the technologies that enable safe firefighting missions in difficult terrain and low-visibility conditions that have previously been complex and difficult to operate in before. “We are developing technology to enhance the amount of information presented to a crew, enabling them to make better decisions and more precisely deliver water on a target. Our tech development team is working closely with a variety of partners who are industry leaders in this space, covering a wide array of competencies; such as our latest development agreement with Sikorsky to integrate autopilot technology onto the S-64. Erickson is orchestrating the combination of these technologies into a comprehensive firefighting system, which will provide all personnel a digitally enhanced view of the fireground. This will enable us to fight fires more safely and effectively than ever before.”

This article first appeared in the March 2020 Firefighting Special Edition.