features Black summer: Fighting the Australian bushfires

We go behind the scenes with those who fought the deadly bushfires that ravaged Australia earlier this year.
Avatar By Paul Sadler | May 25, 2020

Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 14 seconds.

Australia’s 2019/20 bushfire season was unprecedented. While the country was well prepared, well organized and well resourced, extreme record-breaking temperatures mixed with strong winds to manufacture a relentless bushfire season across a very dry landscape.

Australia’s bushfires burned through an estimated 18 million hectares of bushland and destroyed 2,900 homes. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

Aggressive fires raged through the eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory — in addition to a regular spread of seasonal fires throughout other parts of the country. Tragically, 33 people, including three volunteer firefighters, and three American aircrew of a Coulson Aviation C-130 Hercules large air tanker, were killed while protecting lives and property.

Burning through an estimated 18 million hectares of bushland, the fires destroyed 2,900 homes. The town of Balmoral, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Sydney, NSW, was all but wiped off the map. Added to this was the impact on Australia’s wildlife: the University of Sydney estimates more than 800 million animals were killed by the fires in New South Wales alone.

While arson was believed to be the cause of some of the fires, most were the result of power lines sparking or by lightning strikes, with the flames then driven along by the constant strong winds. Vertical spoke with some of the aircrew who banded together to fight the bushfire assault on the Great Southern Land.

Day turns to night

“It was completely unprecedented in my view – I’ve never seen anything like it in the States,” said Evan Wagenaar, assistant chief pilot at Firehawk Helicopters. “The fire activity, the overall size of the fires, and just how fast they moved, I’d never seen anything like it before.”

An Erickson S-64E battles the flames during Australia’s record-breaking wildfire season. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

It was Wagenaar’s third time fighting fires in Australia. He was flying one of Firehawk’s Sikorsky UH-60A/S-70A Black Hawks (on contract to Kestrel Aviation for the season), which carries a 900 US gallon (3,400 liter) Bambi Max bucket. “I was here last March [2019] towards the end of that season, and this was nothing like last year,” Wagenaar said. “Over the recent Christmas/New Year period we finally made it down to Merimbula on the far south coast of New South Wales to an apocalyptic time. It was so bad that we weren’t even able to fly.”

Wagenaar recounts one of the days when he was operating out of Merimbula airport. “They sent us home at 4 p.m. because it started getting dark,” he said. “We went back to our hotel, and by 5:30 p.m., when the sun should have been up, it was pitch black. All the street lights were on and there was ash falling from the sky. This was a situation that I have never been in.”

The fires were unique because of how aggressive and widespread they became. News coverage of bushfires began to hit the media proper when they started around the urban interface of the seaside areas of Noosa and the Sunshine Coast, about an hour north of Brisbane, Queensland, in early September. The fires then moved into northern New South Wales – an area that was extremely vulnerable after a very long period of little or no rain. The combination of dry, very hot and windy conditions was ripe for the picking, and the fires continued to rapidly spread further south.

At times, smoke clouds were so thick they turned day into night during the middle of the afternoon. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

Explosive environment

Rapid initial attack was the recipe to keeping fires small and extinguishing them early on. But, once the fires got past a certain size, it became very difficult for the fire agencies, and operators, to find the right amount of equipment to actually make a difference. “You can’t even describe it in terms of being ‘big,’ ‘bigger than usual,’ or ‘huge,’ ” said Kestrel Aviation managing director Ray Cronin. “The closest word I can think of is massive, and the challenge for everybody was what equipment was available, and what were the engagement arrangements. This was not quite the normal pace at that time of year.”

Cronin said if the same fires had started in the middle of the fire season — when the regularly contracted helicopters were in place and people were at a higher level of readiness — then it may have been a slightly different outcome. “But I think the overriding factor here was the environmental aspects that the conditions were very dry, with very high temperatures early in the season, the winds were strong, and it all made for a very explosive environment,” Cronin said. “You could have that 20/20 vision look at it and say ‘maybe more equipment might have made the difference,’ but I think the environment had set up such a challenge that it was going to be a problem either way.”

Based out of Mangalore, Victoria, Kestrel Aviation’s fleet of five Bell 412s, five 212s, and one Long Ranger – in addition to six Erickson S-64E Air Cranes and two UH-60/S-70As from Firehawk Helicopters – were all on firefighting contracts in various parts of the country. Kestrel also had some call-when-needed capability outside of the contract helicopters.

A Coulson Aviation Sikorsky S-61N, on contract to Emergency Management Victoria, lines up for another drop. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“In the early period of the fires, the challenge for us was we had contract start dates in Victoria that needed to be respected, and our fleet, plus the remainder of that surge capacity that we were able to offer, had to be brought down into Victoria, which of course was flat out anyway,” Cronin said. “So, this was pretty unusual [in] that there was a period in October and November where there were fires in five states.”

The “usual” pattern across the months of Australia’s fire season would see fires in Queensland first, then in New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, with South Australia and Western Australia towards the back end of the season. But that was far from the case this year. All these states were lighting up early and having events across all their boundaries, resulting in fewer opportunities to share resources.

Meteorological modelling

Based out of Moorabbin Airport, near Melbourne, Victoria, Erickson Inc.’s Ross McGuigan – a regular for the company fighting fires in Australia since 2008 – compared these fires to his other main theatre of firefighting operations in Greece.

A Conair Avro RJ85 drops a load of Phos-Chek retardant to help control one of the many fire fronts that engulfed Australia’s east coast. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“They have their moments [in Greece] as well, but you don’t get the campaign fires that burn for weeks on end like you do here in Australia,” McGuigan said. “The dryness and the volatility is something relatively new to me.

The extremely high temperatures and the strong winds that seemed relentless were different, and the combination meant for some fairly serious fire activity. I’ve been in Western Australia for a few seasons as well, and this fire intensity is comparable. But I think it was just the sheer volume of it.”

On Dec. 30, the coastal Victorian town of Mallacoota in the state’s northeast took a big hit from the fires. McGuigan, flying an S-64E Aircrane, was involved in attacking the spotting fire front. “The meteorology modelling and forecasting was extremely accurate, and the fire agency said we would be doing asset protection on that day,” said McGuigan. “And sure enough, when the weather system came through, as they said, the fire grew and became aggressive and uncontrolled. They knew it was it was going to be like that, and I thought that was quite impressive.

A Wildcat Helicopters Bell 412SP drops a bucketload of water during asset protection operations. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“We had everything set up almost two or three days beforehand. And then when it did come, it was an aggressive fire that was spotting several kilometers in front. They said we would be doing asset protection and that’s exactly what we were doing, protecting homes in the path of the fire.”

McGuigan said air and ground crews worked together to protect more houses than were lost in the infernos.

“Once they get to that scale, it’s a little hard to defend everything — it can seem like an overwhelming task,” McGuigan said. “The trick is not to let that get to you. We stay systematically, we work with what we can. If we lose one, our fallback position is we move on to the next property. That’s the only way you can really deal with that: if you get too focused on protecting the one property, you can lose sight of the bigger game.”

The helitacks were always working under the control of the state or territory’s air attack controllers, who provided them with that big picture view.

A Wildcat Helicopters Bell 412 joins a Kestrel Aviation Bell 212 to refill from the middle of a racecourse. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“A lot of what we do isn’t planned by ourselves,” McGuigan said. “We’re being led around by the agency. As you can imagine, when there’s fire everywhere, all the radios are going off, the smoke comes down and gets thicker, [and] it can be very difficult. [Air attack] have more radios than us. We’ve got three to four different channels all chirping away when things get very busy as we all figure out what the priority is, [which is challenging] especially when you’ve got something like 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of active fire line that’s basically unattended and is at the mercy of the weather. It seems chaotic I guess from time to time from the ground, but we are working to a plan, and our air attack controllers direct us and we do what we’re told, when we’re told – it’s very well organized.”

Air temperatures hovered around the 104 F (40 C) mark (and sometimes higher) for days on end. On Jan. 4, the suburb of Penrith, just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the center of Sydney, recorded a high of 120 F (48.9 C).

For a short time, Penrith was listed as the hottest place on Earth.

The helitacks were always working under the control of the state’s or territory’s air attack controllers, who provided them with that big picture view. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

The extreme heat presented a challenge not only for the helicopters, but also the pilots and the mechanics. “With any helicopter, the hotter the conditions ,the more it affects your performance,” McGuigan said. “Our mechanics were working in more heat, we were working and flying in more heat. The whole operation is under just a little more stress when it is hot. From a human factors side you have got to keep your water intake up and stay aware. There are checks and balances in place for fatigue and [in] our particular system we have a spare pilot almost all of the time and we were rotating guys through who were fresh. So we had an ability to keep running at full pace, depending on the maintenance.”

Bigger seasons

Lachie Onslow, the owner of Fleet Helicopters based at Armidale Airport, New South Wales, began fighting the fires in August 2019 near Glen Innes in the north of the state, and progressively moved south with them until ending up in Eden, on the far south coast.

Flying a distinctively pink Bell UH-1H named “Lucy,” which Fleet Helicopters uses to raise awareness of breast cancer, Onslow said it was a big season, but added there have been other big seasons. “We usually have hot and windy days in every season, but there was just more of them this time – it was just longer than normal,” Onslow said. “There were fires up in the northern part of the state and in the south, where usually the northern fires are finished by the time the fires in the south start. But this time they all ran in together.”

One of two Firehawk Helicopters’ UH-60A/S-70A Black Hawks. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

For Onslow, this would be a fire season he won’t forget in a hurry. On Jan. 9, having just refueled Lucy, the helicopter lost power while picking up a load and ditched into Ben Boyd Reservoir, the potable water source for the town of Eden.

“I had just refueled, so I was heavy, which is the worst time to have an engine failure,” Onslow said. “I was in the hover with the bucket just touching the water when I heard a growling noise. I was in dead man’s curve down at 100 feet with no airspeed and pulling a lot of pitch. I dropped the bucket and got a couple of Maydays out and down we went. As I expected, we rolled upside down and sank immediately to the bottom.” (See full story here.)

Angry fires

McDermott Aviation operates one of Australia’s largest fleets of aerial attack helicopters. With all hands on deck, it needed to make some adjustments to manage fatigue because of the volume of hours its pilots were flying. “The conditions the guys were flying in were pretty horrible,” said John McDermott, president of McDermott Aviation.

One of many great saves during the bushfire crisis. Here, a Valhalla Bell 205A-1 saves a property. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“The visibility was absolutely shit, and it was very hot. That’s really an understatement… the conditions were very trying.”

McDermott agrees that this was an unseasonably hot summer. “There is no doubt about it, they were pretty angry fires this year. It was the enormity and the size of them. One of the most unusual things was the wet tropics up near Cairns in far north Queensland was burning, which is almost unheard of. It seemed to be going off everywhere and that caught everybody a little bit off guard.”

On contract in all states of Australia bar one, with a mixed fleet of 13 Bell 214Bs, a single Bell 214ST, five Airbus AS365 N2/3 Dauphines, and five Airbus AS355F TwinStars, McDermott’s whole team were in the thick of it, flying constantly. In a week of scorching hot and windy conditions across southeastern Queensland, one of McDermott’s 214Bs collided with terrain on Nov. 13 while working on a blaze at Pechey, west of Brisbane, Queensland. Coming to rest on its left side, the pilot crawled out through an overhead window, walking away with only minor injuries after the accident.

A load of water from a Kestrel Aviation Bell 212 hits its target. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

“He was a very, very lucky lad, but he’s fine and is back out flying… a little bit the wiser,” McDermott said. “You take a lot away from every season and you certainly learn from them. We do a lot of in-house debriefings and we communicate with everybody throughout our organization to make sure we all have the picture of what’s going on, what’s been going on, and what’s potentially going to happen. So good communications was a big part of it all.”

Talking points

As well as his managing director role at Kestrel Aviation, Cronin heads up Australia’s key voice in the helicopter community as president of the Australian Helicopter Industry Association (AHIA). “I don’t think we have ever seen this amount of activity before,” Cronin said. “We’ve had accidents, we’ve had incidents, and we’ve been very fortunate in the helicopter world that most of those accidents didn’t result in any serious injuries or fatalities.

Unfortunately, with the Coulson C-130 Hercules accident, three lives were lost, and that puts a real shadow over the whole firefight.”

A Helitreck MBB BK117 B2 winches in a U.S. Remote Area Firefighting Team (RAFT) firefighter. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

Australia is burning more on either side of its winter, and this will make the management of assets and logistics more challenging in future. From an industry perspective, there will be some interesting discussions in the months ahead. The obvious talking point will be about the northern and southern hemisphere seasons overlapping, and the strain on sharing resources – particularly the Type 1 heavy hitting machines.

“This fire season was like having three seasons all rolled into one,” Cronin said. “The flight hours of most operators will be well in excess of what they are used to doing. A lot of lessons are going to be learned from this season because it was so compacted. The issues are fairly evident and they’re very fresh in everyone’s minds, so we’ll be taking all of those to meetings and forums during the [southern hemisphere] winter months. The AHIA will certainly be encouraging and communicating all of those lessons to the industry.”

Liquid gold

Mother Nature saved her best for late January, with welcoming rains pouring down across the eastern states of Australia, significantly reducing the amount of active fire grounds. However, the liquid gold also caused areas of severe flooding in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, which saw the retasking of some helitacks to conduct flood relief efforts.

A Timberline Helicopters Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk uses a backyard pool for a water supply. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

These rains were then followed by a week of torrential rain in early February, which saw Sydney record almost 16 inches (400 millimeters) of rainfall in just four days – this was more rain than the city experienced during the entire second half of 2019. February’s welcome rain also extinguished the Gospers Mountain “mega-blaze” that had been burning since late October 2019 northwest of Sydney, reported at the time as being “too big to be put out.”

The rain was also credited with extinguishing the last of the campaign fires for the season. The 40-day Orroral Valley fire, which burned through 83 percent of the Namadgi National Park to the southwest of the national capital, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, was officially declared out by the NSW Rural Fire Service on Feb. 27. A week later, for the first time in 240 days, there were no active bush or grass fires in the state of New South Wales or the Australian Capital Territory.

“Every helicopter operator did a great job, as did all the people on the ground, of course,” McDermott said. “So many people were involved in the fires and the Australian ‘get on and get it done’ spirit came out – it was very much that approach this year, which was pretty cool to be a part of. There were a lot of houses lost, and a lot of people lost of course, but I think it would be interesting to know the amount of people that were actually saved, and I think you would find that would be pretty substantial.”

As Australia burns more on either side of its winter, the management of assets and logistics, particularly the Type 1 heavy hitting machines such as Erickson’s Aircranes, will become more challenging. Ned Dawson/NSW Rural Fire Service Photo

McGuigan and the iconic orange Erickson Aircranes are now migrating to the northern hemisphere and will be retuning Down Under later in the year to do it all again. “We’re quite a recognized brand here in Australia,” McGuigan said. “It’s nice to be a part of it, and it’s nice to be there and make a difference.”

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