Fighting Bemboka bushfire from the air | Video, Photos

Members of the aerial attack and support crew for the Bemboka busfire Mitchell Van Der Meulen, air base manager Wayne Harrison, Brett Kiteley, Tom Lowry, Chilly and Jim Ryan. Picture: Ben Smyth
Members of the aerial attack and support crew for the Bemboka busfire Mitchell Van Der Meulen, air base manager Wayne Harrison, Brett Kiteley, Tom Lowry, Chilly and Jim Ryan. Picture: Ben Smyth

While Rural Fire Service volunteers and National Parks staff battle the Bemboka fire from the ground, a dedicated crew of pilots and support personnel are putting in a mammoth effort from the air.

The bushfire that started in earnest a week ago on August 15 has now burnt out more than 7500ha, mostly national park but also destroying three homes and five outbuildings on properties at Numbugga.

Given the hilly terrain and inaccessibility of much of the fireground, the helicopter pilots have been invaluable in this firefighting effort.

For the RFS-contracted pilots, it’s another in a long line of fires they have been called out to over the years right across the state.

On Wednesday morning, five choppers and their crews were having a briefing at the Old Bega Racecourse before heading out on day seven of this fire.

The racecourse is being used for refuelling and rest stops for the helicopter crews.

Two of the helicopters were water-bombing craft, one with 10-year aerial fire-fighting veteran “Chilly” at the stick.

Chilly pilots a BK117 with a 900-litre bucket. He said the turbulence they are facing makes it hard work to keep control, meaning they take it slowly and carefully to get the water where it can be most effective.

“It’s rough as guts, with the wind and the hills,” he said

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For Brett Kiteley, who sits on high with air attack supervisor Ian Jauncey beside him coordinating the attack, Wednesday’s forecast of “moderate” turbulence was music to his ears.

“The fire is so spread out and the circumference so large, there’s all different parts to it,” Mr Kiteley said.

“We can be fighting one front on the west side and then have to fly all around to the north-east and that can take 15 minutes.

“The turbulence has been enormous. It has’t gone below moderate to severe for the seven days and a few  days it’s been severe.

“I had 125kmh on the nose the other day!”

Also on the team is Snowy Mountains-based pilot Tom Lowry, who is able to assist with backburning operations from the air.

“We’ve got an incendiary machine in the back – basically there are ping pong balls that fly out the side of the helicopter and catch fire once they hit the ground,” he said.

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While the RFS says the fire is now “being controlled”, there is a lot more work needing to be done by those on the ground, with containment lines being created and backburning operations where needed – weather permitting.

In the meantime, the air crews continue to provide an invaluable element to what will be a protracted fight.

Mr Jauncey said for now it’s about “fighting fire with fire” (backburning).

“Then we’re fighting it on our terms, not the fire’s.

This story Fighting Bemboka bushfire from the air | Video, Photos first appeared on Bega District News.

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