The Weekly Advertiser Horsham
Air response ‘invaluable’
The harvest season for firefighting bomber planes stationed at Nhill has extended to match farmers’ movements.
Fire operations co-ordinator Peter Rohan is a firefighting pilot based at Stawell and said there was no time to relax during the harvest season.
“There’s a lot of fuel around and it is drying out rapidly and this is where we get caught — just because it’s been quiet so far doesn’t mean we won’t get busy,” he said.
“The grain harvest was held up with wet weather, so we have had to extend the harvest period for the bombers.
“There are two bombers based Nhill and four bombers at Stawell.
“There are reloading facilities at Nhill, Horsham, Warracknabeal, St Arnaud and Stawell — so we can operate from any of those bases and that allows us to get to a fire with a turnaround time of 15 to 20 minutes.
“It takes about three minutes to fill a bomber once the hose is hooked in.”
Mr Rohan said a new call-out system meant at least two bombers could respond within 20 minutes of receiving a report of visible smoke.
“We also dispatch a Birddog, which is another plane with an air attack supervisor who co-ordinates the aerial attack by circling the fire and directing the water bombers to make sure it’s safe to drop the water,” he said.
“Bombers carry three tonnes of water and foam and drop it to attack a fire.”
Mr Rohan said the firefighter planes and pilots worked under contract for whoever needed them — including the Department of Energy, Environment at
and Climate Action, DEECA or the Country Fire Authority, CFA.
“We have six pilots — seven with the Birddog — and do other jobs with camera work and finding fires with infrared cameras,” he said.
“If we get a lightning strike in the Little Desert, for example, we can also go out and put a retardant line around the fire that slows it down until the ground crews can get in there.”
CFA District 16 assistant chief fire officer Bernie Fradd said aerial firefighting support was ‘invaluable’.
“Firefighting bombers operate on a pre-determined dispatch — so the minute a fire is called in and a pager message is sent out to brigades, the aircraft personnel get that at the same
time and are called to respond,” he said. “By the time a brigade gets on the fire ground, there are usually a couple of bombers above them.
“We have a lot of access to highquality aircraft and, to be honest, without the aircraft, we would be in enormous trouble — they do an incredible job. They can slow down fires enough so brigades can get on scene and put the fire out.
“Aircraft can’t put fires out, but they can certainly slow them down and knock down the heat from them so firefighters can get close enough to do their job.”
Mr Fradd said despite the early part of the fire danger period being ‘fairly benign’, the potential for fire would likely increase as summer continued.
“Late rain in 2022 slowed down fire risk but there’s a lot of long grass and it’s drying off rapidly, so any days from now on with warm weather and strong winds are certainly potential for extreme fires,” he said.
“We expect during the end of January, through February and early March there will be significant fire potential.
“Also, given the weather slowed down a lot of farmers being able to harvest their crops, that risk remains.
“As much as farmers take care and use best practice, having machinery in contact with dry crops is a potential for fire to start from no-one’s fault, it’s just hot engines and dry fuel.”