With the fire season at its peak in parts of Europe and North America, state and fire authorities around Australia are making plans for the 2011/12 bushfire season which will kick off in parts of the country as early as late August. With the exception of Western Australia (WA), which had one of the most devastating bushfire seasons on record, Australia had a relatively quiet fire season in 2010/11. Large areas of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and northern WA experienced more problems in early 2011 from floods than fires, with some of the fleet of helicopters contracted by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) deployed to rescue people from floods, according to NAFC general manager Richard Alder.
The number of helicopters and aircraft deployed to fight bushfires in Australia has risen rapidly over the past few decades, with just a handful deployed in the 1970s to a 52-strong fleet of aircraft and helicopters contracted for the 2010/2011 season, which started in September in Queensland and ended in April in WA. In addition, individual states and territories deploy their own fleets. According to Alder, the NAFC fleet in 2010/11 was the largest ever contracted by the organization, which was set up by the federal, state and territory governments in 2003. A similar fleet is likely for the coming fire season, with contract negotiations ongoing in mid-July.
Considerable research has been done by Australia to determine the best mix of aerial firefighting resources. For example, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC)’s groundbreaking 2007 study on “The Effectiveness and Efficiency of Aerial Firefighting in Australia,” has helped fire agencies identify the most effective combination of suppression resources. A subsequent study on the cost-effectiveness of aerial firefighting found that the use of ground resources with initial aerial support is the most economically efficient approach to fire suppression. It determined helicopters are the most economically efficient approach for remote fires, they perform better than large air tankers in Australian conditions, and high volume helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are more economically efficient.
Over the years, Australia has found that a mix of type one helicopters (with a capacity of up to 2,650 liters), type two medium helicopters (1,135 to 2,649 liters), type three light helicopters (380 to 1,134 liters), and single-engine fixed-wing fire bombers work best.
The 2010/11 NAFC fleet included Bell 205s, 206s, 212s and 214s; Erickson S64s; Eurocopter AS350s and AS355s; Kawasaki BK117B2s; and Sikorsky S-61s. In addition, individual states deployed their own assets. WA, for example, spent nearly A$9 million on its 2010/11 aerial fleet. WA’s aerial fleet, which included two Sikorsky S61Ns, was activated 348 times, flew more than 530 hours, made more than 2,800 drops and saved approximately 300 properties, the government says. South Australia had a 14-strong aerial fleet, which included an Erickson S64 Aircrane, Bell 205s and Eurocopter AS355s. Three Aircranes, AS350s, and Bell 205/206/212/412s are featured in Victoria’s 17-strong helicopter fleet for firebombing, fire detection and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and command, and back burning. In remote areas, Victoria also uses its Bell helicopters for rappelling and hover exit of specialist firefighters.
Erickson Aircranes are a familiar sight in Australia in the fire season—having operated in Australia for 13 years. When the likes of “Elvis” and “Elsie” arrive, the Australian public knows that summer is about to begin. Elvis, in particular, gained notoriety in the Black Christmas fires of 2001, when it helped to save hundreds of homes around Sydney. Six of the type operated in the country in the latest fire season, with the helicopters typically on contract for 12 weeks. The S64’s maneuverability, precision-drop capability and fast turnaround make it a highly effective firefighting tool, Australia has found. Aerial firefighting was one of the many areas investigated by a Royal Commission following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009 in which more than 170 people died. The Commission found that aerial resources played an important role.
While the helicopter fleet is unlikely to change a great deal this year, fire authorities are constantly looking at the potential for new technology to aid in fighting bushfires. For example, NAFC’s ongoing study recently included a trial of a Sikorsky S-76 equipped with high-definition electro-optical sensors and mapping and communications packages. In addition, NAFC predicts that Australia will be operating unmanned aerial systems, particularly in obtaining intelligence, in five to 10 years. Despite the new technology, helicopters are set to save homes and lives throughout the Australian summer for many years to come. And with this writer experiencing a bushfire less than a kilometer from her house during the last fire season, I’m very thankful for that.