Australia — Canadian Bill Ross has been flying helicopters for 35 years but for the last two years he has been coming to Perth during summer to fly a waterbomber used to fight the bushfires.
Mr Ross is a pilot on the Sikorsky helicopter which can carry almost 4,000 litres of water.
“They’re a very stable platform for performing this kind of work and the manoeuvrability such that we can follow the lighter helicopters [WA’s four squirrel helicopters] around and deliver more water.”
There are two Sikorsky choppers leased from Vancouver each summer by the Fire and Emergency Services as the first line of air attack to bring bushfires under control.
FESA Minister Rob Johnson decided to bring the choppers to Perth and Busselton a month earlier than expected this year.
“We’ve brought them forward by a month because predictions are bushfire season is starting early this year.”
Mr Ross says the Sikorsky helicopters travel at about 100 knots with a full tank and drop the water at a speed of 40 to 60 knots from a height of between 15 and 30 metres off the ground.
“We have two coverage settings. It’s all a function of height and air speed we can vary the drop from about 50 metres to 300 metres that’s with the door openings and the speed of the aircraft.”
15 people can also be transported in the helicopter allowing the flexibility to reach isolated and remote fires.
Mr Ross has been flying the fire fighting helicopters around the world, including Canada, Taiwan, the United States and Europe.
But he’s noticed the big difference in fighting fires in WA is that they affect people and property.
“In Canada, the fires are in the places that you can’t drive to and their used for initial attack on those fires and typically they would get in with ground forces after the initial hits with the helicopters.
“Here, it’s the other way around; the brigades converge on the fire and if they need air support we’re called in.”
Mr Ross says the Sikorsky helicopters play a very important role because they can get to a fire quickly and drop water directly where it is needed.
“Typically the fires that we work on here in Western Australia are in the urban interface area unlike Canada where most of the fires are in the hinterland, bush country and they’re started typically by lightning.
“We find it quite an interesting challenge fighting the interface fires.”
He enjoys working in WA and says that both Canadian and Australian authorities have learnt each others’ methods on fighting bushfires.
“The people at home have learnt quite a bit from us from what we’ve learned from the FESA people here.”
Mr Ross has seen the speed with which fires can destroy homes but he says safety is always paramount.
“We assess every run from a safety perspective on the go pretty much, (we) don’t fly into really dense smoke, we often maintain visual contact with the ground.
“At all times you’re constantly evaluating the visual conditions but trying to get in as close as you can, of course, to try and get the water where it does the most good.”
He says there is a sense of appreciation when the helicopters help someone save their life.
“It’s great, it’s nice to be recognised for helping out and when the local people see our flags on our shirts they are sometimes just about ready to jump over the counter and give us a hug which is quite rewarding.”
The weather bureau is forecasting a long and hot summer which authorities say will be conducive to bushfires.
FESA is encouraging all West Australians living in bushfire prone areas to be prepared.