Fighting bushfires from the air is more than just dropping lots of water
Marcus Skelly will be on call all summer, waiting to fight fires from the air. (ABC Hobart: Georgie Burgess)
Fighting a fierce bushfire from the air can feel like you’re inside a tumble dryer.
It’s loud, there is thick smoke, and visibility is low.
While colleagues battle the blaze on the ground, a pilot must prepare to accurately drop 3,000 litres of water.
With the soaring temperatures and increased fire danger around Tasmania in recent days, fire service veteran Marcus Skelly has been waiting for the call to get in the air.
He is a long-time member of the Tasmania Fire Service’s air operations unit, tasked with slowing bushfires from above.
“Within 30 minutes we can have multiple aircraft waterbombing a fire,” Mr Skelly said.
The Tasmania Fire Service will again use aircraft this summer to slow fires. (Supplied: Marcus Skelly)
Seven aircraft — three Bell 214 helicopters, two light aircraft and two fixed-wing Air Tractors — can be airborne within 15 minutes of a fire being reported.
They can carry 3,000 litres of water as well as perform observation functions and provide information to crews on the ground.
“Their vision and situational awareness is a little bit jaded because you can’t see for the smoke and the trees,” Mr Skelly said.
“Once you get up into the air and get a bird’s eye view, you can see where the fire is, where it’s travelling and where it’s going to impact.
“We can provide important intel.”
Firefighter Marcus Skelly prepares to take off in a waterbombing helicopter. (Supplied: Marcus Skelly)
Dunalley fires ‘like nothing I’ve ever seen’
Mr Skelly has been a firefighter for 24 years, 14 of them in firefighting aviation.
Every mission comes with high risks, but the 2013 Dunalley bushfires stand out as the toughest he has faced.
He spent days in the air during the disaster across the Tasman and Forestier peninsulas.
“We were operating in catastrophic fire conditions. The best analogy is that riding around in an aircraft felt like being in a tumble dryer.
“It’s really hot, it’s windy, there’s a lot of turbulence, you’re not sitting still.”
Up in the air Mr Skelly could see the enormity of the fire.
“That day in Dunalley was like nothing I had ever seen before. Fires were behaving in a way that I didn’t think they could.”
Adding to the stress was that friends and colleagues were battling the fires below; his older brother Andrew was the fire ground supervisor.
“We’re a small organisation, everyone knows each other.
“I could see what was happening on the ground, and while it was really uncomfortable for us in the air, it was also equally or more dangerous for the guys on the ground.
“It’s really important to maintain focus.”
‘It looked like dust was burning’
“We’d been working earlier in the day trying to control the fire closer to where it started,” Mr Skelly recalled.
“We knew things were going to turn ugly and we’d identified that there’d be a trigger point where we’d stop trying to put the fire out and try and keep in front of it, making sure people were safe.”
By mid-morning they noticed a change in the fire’s behaviour.
“The first sign that we were in trouble was when a small spot fire jumped over the Arthur Highway,” Mr Skelly said.
“It basically started burning in what looked like a paddock with no vegetation, essentially a dust bowl.
“We had three aircraft bombing it and we couldn’t contain it — it looked like dust was burning.”
Mr Skelly says he’d never seen a bushfire behave like the one at Dunalley in 2013. (AAP/News Limited: Chris Kidd)
While Mr Skelly briefed ground crews on the situation, it was already too late. The fire beat the crews to Dunalley.
He communicated information from above about where the fire was spreading and what could be protected.
“You can look back now and there’s always improvements you can make,” he said.
“At the end of the day people lost property but there were no lives lost.
“People were put in seriously harrowing situations, but everyone pulled together and with communication flow and good leadership, we achieved a result that you’ve got to be pretty proud of.”
Smoke from the Dunalley fires could be seen by Mr Skelly as he prepared to take off. (Supplied: Marcus Skelly)
Have a plan and leave early
Mr Skelly said the Dunalley fires showed what could happen on an extreme fire danger day and why residents needed to be prepared.
“People have to prepare by making sure their property is as safe as it can be,” he said.
“On days like Dunalley, people need to realise that there’s really nowhere safe.
“Fires will burn and they will burn fiercely.”
He said fuel-reduction burns had been conducted this year to help protect communities but bushfire plans were still crucial.
“People need to ensure they are prepared to face a fire front.
“If it comes through, they need to make sure they have the physical and mental capacity to handle that stress.
“People get hurt when they think they are prepared but realise at the last minute how harrowing it is and they leave, and that places them and everyone else in harm’s way.”
Mr Skelly said people should also be aware of any waterbombing aircraft in their area.
“We have some robust procedures, so before we can start dropping water we ensure there’s no people or assets that we’re going to cause damage to,” he said.
“If we are releasing three tonnes of water from a moving aircraft, we need to make sure we know what that’s going to do.
“If people are operating in and around the area and they notice aircraft, we need them to move to safety and away from the fire.”