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Fighting fires from the air
Thursday 15 October 2015 – 9:00 AM

Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) District Officer Mike Stewart has seen bushfires from just about every angle.

District Officer Stewart has spent the last 10 years fighting some of Western Australia’s biggest bushfires from the air as both an Air Attack Supervisor and an Aerial Intelligence Officer.
“From a helicopter above the fire, an Air Attack Supervisor coordinates the water-bombing aircraft to support firefighters efforts on the ground,” District Officer Stewart said.
“Aerial Intelligence Officers also operate from high above the fires. They  use a specially equipped helicopter with thermal imaging equipment and geospatial computers to gather intelligence about a fire for the incident management team.”  
District Officer Stewart said there was a common misconception that water-bombing aircraft could ‘save the day’ by putting out huge fires.
“Aerial firefighting is just one part of the bigger picture of responding to bushfires – it supports ground crews and helps carry out the incident controller’s plan for combatting the fire.
“Firefighters on the ground and aircraft each have their role to play. Air support is incredibly  important in a large fire but our priorities are the same - to protect life and property, critical infrastructure and the environment.
“If life or property  is under threat, we can see that coming, alert the firefighting crews and get there to protect them if needed.”
District Officer Stewart said aerial firefighting was the most intense job he has ever done.
“Flying around a fire is some of the most dangerous flying you can do. You’re flying at low altitude with very poor visibility  due to smoke, in a crowded airspace with other aircraft and birds.
“Drones are an added danger for air support personnel. They are a threat and aircraft cannot fight fires safety with drones in the area – it’s that simple.
“Aerial firefighting really  tests you both physically  and mentally, but knowing you’re helping to protect lives, including those of your colleagues – is totally worth it.”
District Officer Stewart recalled a day  when he had to direct aircraft to drop water directly on a firefighting crew which had been caught in the path of a fast-moving bushfire.
“We had an unexpected wind change which pushed the fire towards firefighters, who were backburning at the time.
“I could see them there and I saw the fire change direction and could tell something wasn’t right. We needed to get them out.
“I put the call through and we did a water drop across them to make sure they  got out safely.
“On days like that you really feel like you’ve achieved something.”
The value of air support is also in early  suppression to stop a small fire from developing into a major fire before crews on the ground can respond.
“Often air crews can get to a fire within a few minutes of it breaking out, which helps reduce the spread of the fire and its overall impact. 
“Aerial intelligence officers quickly  map the shape of the fire and provide accurate information to ground crews to ensure they  are working effectively and most importantly that they are safe.”
Helitacs pick up water from the closest water source such as a dam or lake, while fixed-wing aircraft land at nearby  airfields to refill.
District Officer Stewart said aircraft refilling in metropolitan areas was an unusual sight and often attracted a crowd.
“While we understand a helitac filling up with water looks impressive, we ask that people stay  a safe distance away. 
“During refilling, dust and water spray  from the rotors can cause injury and the helitacs must have a clear area to land in an emergency.”
The aerial fleet responded to a record number of incidents during the 2014-15 bushfire season.
Fixed wing bombers based in Perth, Bunbury,  Manjimup and Albany responded to 183 fires and conducted 2214 drops, over 900 more than the previous year.  
The State’s helitac fleet based in Perth and Busselton had a record year attending 178 incidents and conducting 9,625 drops totalling over 25.7 million litres - nearly double the volume of the 2013-14 season.
This year, the first aerial firefighting aircraft will again be ready for duty from 1 November, with the fleet increasing to full strength by  20 December. 
DFES Deputy Commissioner Steve Fewster said that aerial intelligence and fire suppression are invaluable tools when it comes to fighting fires, but people need to be bushfire ready.
“You cannot rely on a water-bombing aircraft saving your property this summer – you need to take responsibility and ensure you are prepared for bushfires,” Deputy  Commissioner Fewster said.
“Simple actions to take include pruning back trees, cutting long grass, clearing your roof gutters and removing rubbish from around your house.
“A well prepared property has a better chance of surviving a bushfire.”
For information on how to prepare for and respond to bushfires visit www.areyouready.wa.gov.au.
District Officer Stewart was deployed to the United States on Saturday 22 August as part of an Australian contingent helping to fight dozens of bushfires burning across the western part of the country. He returned on Wednesday 30 September.