AUSTRALIA – NSW rural firefighters are angry they’ve missed out on a trial of night-time waterbombing ahead of the upcoming bushfire season.
Intense battles to contain blazes are increasingly fought and won in the air but due to outdated rules the states waterbombing fleet is forced to return to base 30 minutes before nightfall.
NSW rural firefighters are now calling for regulatory approval for waterbombing helicopters to attack fires at night after the technology was trialled in Victoria.
Tathra Rural Fire Brigade deputy captain Jason Lewington battled the ferocious March fires in his town and said having aerial support at night would have helped ground crews during that emergency.
“It would make it a lot easier,” he said.
“Air support is invaluable to us — it allows us to drop water where hoses can’t get to and it also gives us a bird’s-eye view.”
“(Night-time waterbombing) would mean rather than waiting around til the next morning you could knock it out at night.”
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority gave the green light for two aviation companies to undertake night-time waterbombing in Victoria this summer bringing the state in-line with some jurisdictions in the US.
It follows a successful trial in February — overseen by Emergency Management Victoria — which saw helicopter pilots waterbombing controlled fires using special night vision goggles.
EMV said it was agreed Victoria would conduct the trial on behalf of all Australian states and territories.
But approval for night-time bombing this summer has only been granted to companies in Victoria meaning NSW’s fleet will still be forced to return at dusk.
Kestrel Aviation pilot Richard Butterworth, an army veteran who flew helicopters in the trial, said night-time waterbombing allows crews to gain the upper hand over fires when temperatures drop at night.
“We’re very proud of what we’re doing, because at the end of the day this is about protecting communities,” he said.
NSW Rural Fire Service, which will have more than 100 aircraft at its disposal this summer, already conducts controlled burning and mapping operations using aircraft at night but its waterbombing helicopters must be grounded.
A NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman said the trial was undertaken in Victoria “to avoid duplication” but that “its outcomes and leanings (will be) shared with all jurisdictions”.
It’s understood NSW Rural Fire and Rescue will review Victoria’s use of the night-time waterbombing technology this bushfire season before deciding whether to adopt it here.
NSW authorities are expecting a fierce fire season this year amid extremely dry conditions across the state.
Ten local council areas in NSW have already declared their fire danger period, with the rest of the state to follow suit in October.
National Aerial Firefighting Centre general manager Richard Alder — who helps oversee government contracts with aviation companies that fly waterbombing aircraft — said night-time attacks could be rolled out in NSW.
“I think it’s a capability valid across the country,” he said.
“The trials are running in Victoria, but that’s more a matter of convenience and because EMV has facilitated it.”