Firebombers to fly at night in Australian-first trial to tackle fires at their coolest

Firebombers to fly at night in Australian-first trial to tackle fires at their coolest

02 February 2018

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Fire agencies in Victoria are set to trial firebombing at night, in an Australian-first effort to get a better hold on bushfires.

Currently, firebombing planes and helicopters have to be grounded at night.

They are used to drop water, foam or fire retardant in front of bushfires to reduce or halt the fire’s spread.

They are also used to transport firefighters, map and check fires, and drop incendiary devices to ignite backburns.

Victorian emergency services commissioner Craig Lapsley said the Country Fire Authority and Forest Fire Management Victoria would begin a trial of night firebombing in late February.

“We want to be able to keep waterbombing helicopters in the air until about midnight, to get off the ground again at 4am to get a good run on fires,” Mr Lapsley said.

“That way we can knock fires out when they are at their coolest, not their most intense.”

Challenges ahead

Mr Lapsley said the trial would need to prove to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority that aerial firebombing at night was safe.

” If we can prove that, we’ll be the first in Australia and possibly even the world to lead night firebombing operations.”

Mr Lapsley said the challenges included the different behaviour of smoke and fire at night, and lighting around dams for reloading aircraft.

“To be able to aerial firebomb at night in Australia we need certification, and it doesn’t happen in many parts of the world,” he said.

Choppers would need modifications

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), which coordinates the contracts for firebombing aircraft across Australia, supports the trial.

NAFC general manager Richard Alder said helicopters would need to be substantially modified for safe firebombing at night.

“The main issue is lighting. Cockpit lighting will need to be changed so it doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s night-vision goggles,” Mr Alder said.

Powerful external lights and special navigation systems would also need to be fitted to the helicopters.

“The crew would need to wear specialised night goggles, which can cost anywhere between $10,000–$30,000 a set,” Mr Alder said.

“There’s no reason to think the risk can’t be managed with the proper safety measures in place.”

Helicopters will be used during the night trial, but it is hoped approval will also extend to fixed-wing bombers and the larger tankers used for firebombing in Australia.

Fifty-one years of firebombing in Australia

February 6 marks the 51st anniversary of the first official firebombing flights in Australia.

On that day in 1967, two Piper Pawnees from Benambra in East Gippsland made the first organised drop of retardant on a small lightning strike fire in north-eastern Victoria.

One of the planes was flown by long-serving East Gippsland Shire councillor Ben Buckley, who still lives in Benambra.

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