When Kestrel Aviation’s managing director Ray Cronin discusses firefighting, he uses words similar to what a soldier would use when describing a battle. And, in many respects, fighting large-scale bushfires in Australia is like going into battle.
Cronin is an industry veteran, with more than 30 years aerial fire-fighting experience, who founded Kestrel Aviation in 1985.
It started as a helicopter pilot training school at an airfield in suburban Melbourne, but now it is based at a purpose-built helicopter airfield in Mangalore, central Victoria, and is one of the largest aerial firefighting companies in Australia. Kestrel Aviation is also Australia’s largest operator of Bell 212 and Bell 412 helicopters with a total of 12 Bell aircraft among its extensive fleet.
He says that the pilots who fly the firefighting helicopters are a unique breed.
“We have some pilots who are ex-military, but most of our pilots come from a general aviation, such as cattle mustering background,” says Cronin.
“Pilots who do firefighting are generally extroverted people, love to get their hands dirty, are hard-working and hands-on. Firefighting is not routine work, there are a lot of challenges in it.”
Besides dumping water and fire retardant on fires, the Kestrel fleet of Bell 212s and 412s are also used to transport firefighters into difficult, hard to reach places.
“It is not for the faint-hearted,” says Cronin, when asked to describe the type of person who would rappel out of a helicopter at 250 feet and land in the bush to put out fires ignited by lightning strikes.
“Hopefully they get to the fire when it is still small inside the trunk or close to ground level,” he says, adding the firefighters can identify a fire, hidden inside a tree, by the smouldering smoke or by tracking the co-ordinates of a mapped strike. Lightning that strikes a tree, and causes fire, often penetrates deep within because the water inside the tree acts as an electrical conductor.
“It is important to contain an ignition source and put water on it as soon as possible,” says Cronin, adding that the helicopter has a remote off load system with a hose connected to a 1,500-litre water tank on the helicopter’s underbelly.
“The despatcher lowers down the hose to the rappel team who can then release the water directly to where it is needed.”
“Rappel Firefighters are people who love the bush and the outdoors,” says Cronin, adding that they are resilient and know how to survive in remote areas. They either have to trek out of the wooded areas on their own, or they have to cut a clearing in the bush to make a make-shift helipad.
Kestrel has long pioneered technological and safety improvements in the Australian aerial firefighting arena, and was the first Australian helicopter operator approved by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to fight fires at night. Its pilots have special night-vision goggles, called ‘Night Eyes’, that are CASA certified.
The night vision goggles are needed so they can continue to fight fires after dusk.
Kestrel has also done trials for ‘initial attack’ at night. “That is when we go out to a fire that started during the night,” says Cronin.
This year will see further development of the use of ‘initial attack’ techniques, which is an extension of the trials that have been conducted in Victoria to date, says Cronin.
“We will be using the night vision goggles to do night-time reconnaissance work, find the water supply and start working to put out the fire. So far, we have only fought fires at night that were an extension of fire-fighting done during the day, but now we will have a full capability to go out, any time of the day, and fight fires.”
Kestrel’s helicopters are equipped with 1,500-litre Conair 85-KE fire-fighting water tanks that the business has made improvements to.
Cronin says its Conair 85 water tanks normally use the aircraft’s hydraulic system, but instead Kestrel has installed a power pack, substantially increasing the speed at which the water is deployed. He says it now comes out as a big mass of water, “which is what you need”.
“You need to deliver it as a package rather than a drawn-out shower, because when you have aggressive fires with a lot of heat and energy behind it, the only way to combat the fire is with a large parcel of water,” adds Cronin.
Bushfires in Australia are getting larger, more intense and less predictable; while the fire season itself is getting longer.
The fire season in each state used to be 90 days, “but now it is around 130 days and maybe as much as 160 days”, says Cronin. “If you look across all the states in Australia, the fire season now spans seven months.”
Bushfires in Australia start in the northern part of the country and generally work its way down the mountainous heavily forested areas inland from the east coast. The previous fire season started in August and officially ended 31 March. The fires began in the northern state of Queensland and Northern Territory, worked its way down the NSW coast and then into the states of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Last year’s bushfires in Australia were unprecedented and so catastrophic that the Australian government held a royal commission; an independent public enquiry.
The commission says reports on the amount of land destroyed by the fires vary from between 24 to 40 million hectares.
It is estimated that nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the bushfires; over 3,000 homes and many other buildings were destroyed; and “tragically 33 people died”, says the commission.
“Smoke may have well caused other deaths,” it says, adding that “others suffered serious physical, emotional and psychological injuries”.
“For many people, it will take years to recover and rebuild.”
Bushfires in Australia are becoming more intense, because of excessive drying – in the lead up to the fire season – caused by climate change.
“We have dry seasons in Australia that appear to be getting longer and we are having successive years of dry seasons whereas in the past, you may have some years that are not so dry and maybe quite wet,” says Cronin.
Very strong wind is the other reason why bushfires are becoming more intense.
“Wind speed is actually more critical than temperature,” says Cronin, adding that last fire season the ambient temperature in the cockpit was at times up to 45-50 degrees.
“If you get a 50-knot wind behind a fire, you will get ‘spotting’ and ‘jumping’ two to three kilometres ahead. You will not just get embers, from burning leaves and ash, you’ll even get burning branches flying through the air. We try to dodge those, but you can’t always see them coming,” says Cronin in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Spot fires, coming out from the inferno, broadens the front.
“It spreads out like a funnel rather than in a straight line.”
One of the vital roles that Kestrel’s Bell 212s and Bell 412s play is to help put out the spot fires, so the main blaze is contained and can eventually be attacked by ground crews, says Cronin.
Australia’s National Aviation Firefighting Centre classifies the Bell 212 and Bell 412 as Type 2 helicopters, which are second tier; the large-size Type 1 helicopters are held in reserve for higher priority targets, leaving the Type 2 aircraft to do the intercept work, which are able to get on station faster to extinguish the fire.
It is well-known in the industry that the best chance of extinguishing a fire is early on, before it becomes too big.
Cronin says if the fire becomes large, the intensity can get so great that it becomes impossible to fly over and extinguish. The strategy then is “to flank it on either side, stop the spot fires and stop it from getting bigger”.
While fighting bushfires is challenging work for firefighters, it also creates a very challenging environment for aircraft.
“We operate the Bell in challenging conditions: heat, turbulence and low-level flying. That is why we have stayed with the Bell product. It does everything we need it to do and it is robust,” Cronin says.
“Bell helicopters are very straight-forward aircraft to work with. One of the great things, is it is a family of aircraft. If you have been working on Bell 212s and need to move to Bell 412s, it is not big deal at all. There is such a common theme in Bell’s design and in its systems.”
He says, from a maintenance perspective, the aircraft are predictable, and Bell has a strong customer support network that “has allowed us to fulfil our mission to the communities we serve”.
Bell has four certified customer service facilities in Australia providing specialist and ongoing through-life support for its customers in-country.
Cronin describes Bell aircraft as ‘workhorses’ and attributes the aircraft’s robustness and reliability to the fact the aircraft were originally designed to be ‘war-horses’.
“The legacy and the history of the Bell as a medium-size helicopter platform has really aided us to have such a high serviceability and dispatch reliability of 99.7 per cent at the moment,” he says.
“Anything built to military spec is going to be designed to operate beyond whatever it would face in the civil world.
“The Bell is built to be strong and was originally designed for the battlefield, so we are the beneficiaries of all that military research and development and the lessons learnt from having that aircraft flying around the battlefield.”