Fighting fires from the air at night will be a “game changer” according to Emergency Management commissioner Craig Lapsley.
Rather than grounding the fleet of helicopters and aircraft that water-bomb fires during daylight hours, an Australian-first trial is proving that firebombers can continue operations at night with the right technology and safety considerations.
“We know some of these fires run as hard in the night hours as in daylight hours so it’s important to have this capability,” Mr Lapsley said.
“It will change the way the whole operations works. Currently we have to put aircraft on the ground about 8pm and can’t lift off until at least daylight, but being able to fly in to the early part of an evening when fires are still running hard, burning property and threatening communities will be a huge advantage for firefighters.
“And in the morning, getting out in the early part of the morning around 4am or 5am in the coolest part of the day if the fire is running it gives us the best opportunity to be out there controlling it before the heat of the day sets in.”
Mr Lapsley said the night fire bombing trials were leading the world in that pilots were hovering over a dam or water supply to pick up water at night before dumping it on a fire.
The giant Sikorsky S61 aircraft leading the night-time firefight can dump up to 4000 litres of water on a fire at a time, and will be directed exactly where to drop the water by a second “Firebird” aircraft.
Where night fire bombing is used overseas, helicopters fly back to a base to receive another load of water rather than sucking it up from water source.
“We have already flown last week to prove we could pick up water from a water source at night … and this week will go on to put fires out,” Mr Lapsley said.
Emergency services have been working toward this trial for about two years.
“We want to make sure we can get the best out of our aircraft and make sure we can put fires out not only in the day but to at night to support our firefighters on the ground who are at the fire front,” Mr Lapsley said.
The trial will take place this week around Ballarat, meaning more helicopter noise is likely for residents under their flightpath but Mr Lapsley promised helicopters would be back on the ground for the night by 11pm.
Crews from Coulson Helicopters, who conduct night fire bombing in the US, and Mangalore-based Kestrel Aviation, are working with Emergency Management Victoria on the trial which the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is assessing before it gives its approval.
Mr Lapsley said night time aerial firefighting would not be introduced until next fire season.
“We want to make sure we can get the best out of our aircraft and make sure we can put fires out not only in the day but to at night to support our firefighters on the ground who are at the fire front.”Emergency Management Victoria commissioner Craig Lapsley
Night vision firefighting – how it works
Until now, firebombing aircraft have been grounded as the sun went down.
Using a combination of night vision goggles and a “Firebird” aircraft equipped with laser marking and infra-red capabilities, firebombing crews will be able to safely pick up water from open water sources near the fire ground and drop it in to the most dangerous fingers of flame.
The Firebird and its crew assess dams and water sources for potential dangers, including overhead electricity wires, overhanging trees, animals and other perils, before giving a green light to an approach and departure path for the incoming firebomber.
The firebomber then swoops in to suck up to 4000 litres of water through its hose as it hovers over the water before the Firebird directs the pilots where to drop their load.
All crews wear night vision goggles for safety.
“It’s a dark, smokey, black environment without night goggles – a pilot wearing night vision goggles is a safety feature of what and how we operate the aircraft,” said Emergency Management commissioner Craig Lapsley.
Coulson Aviation pilot Aaron Lighter, who has fought fires using night vision goggles in North America, said night firefighting operations were “one more tool in the tool box for everyone here in Victoria.”
“The night vision goggles turn night in to daylight so we can see what we need to see,” he said.
“With the help of CASA and Emergency Management Victoria we are demonstrating something that is already being proven back in North America and bringing it here … CASA are asking us to step through some checks and balances to make sure we are safe and able to accomplish what we’re trying to do.”