One of Australia’s smallest states, Victoria is also one of the country’s – and the world’s – most bushfire prone areas. The “We Work as One” mantra of its Country Fire Authority (CFA), Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFM Vic) and Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) is the key to successfully managing that risk. The most recent bushfire season ran from late winter until early autumn, well beyond the summer period usually associated with bushfires. At the height of it, night firebombing was used on bushfires for the first time in Australia.
As summer nears in the northern hemisphere, the Victorian emergency services sector is looking back at the successful management of yet another bushfire season.
No longer a summer phenomenon only – in Victoria or the other states and countries that we work with – bushfires pose a risk to lives and property from late winter to mid-autumn.
From the fires in our state’s south west in March 2018, to last August’s fire in the state’s far east, and our most recent fire in Bunyip on this year’s first day of autumn (1 March) are examples of significant fires outside of the traditional period for Victoria. Some caused significant property losses, but thankfully no lives were lost.
In total, we lost close to 50 properties, with a total of approximately 219,000 hectares of land burnt this season.
The night firebombing trial provided an opportunity to utilise Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS) technology on bushfires. It played an important role in supporting ground crews, mitigating the potential impacts of fires outside containment lines, improving real time intelligence and adding to the effectiveness of back burn and other operations.
Whilst night firebombing using night vision goggles is undertaken overseas, the innovation in the Victorian trial was to enable hover filling of firebombing aircraft from open water sources including farm dams and the like, using night vison technology. In most other jurisdictions, that undertake night firebombing, aircraft are ground-filled.
Establishing the necessary approvals and safety procedures to allow hover filling from open water sources near the fire areas of operations adds significant advantages in aerial water bombing efficiency.
The ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach used as the trial has progressed has been an important underpinning to ensuring that safe systems of work are able to be sustained.
It is also why Emergency Management Victoria, Kestrel Aviation (Australia) and Coulson Aviation (Canada) were recognised with the award for Aerial Firefighting Innovation and Advancement at the Aerial Firefighting Awards 2019 in Nîmes in March for their ground-breaking, collaborative work in developing safe and effective practices for aerial firefighting at night using helicopters equipped with night vision goggles.
Whilst the focus in 2017/18 was on establishing the regulatory approvals necessary to enable night firebombing operations to be undertaken, the focus in the 2018/19 fire season shifted to operational deployment with the objectives of testing systems of work, undertaking operations in a variety of vegetation, and terrain and urban edge settings, and better understanding the practicalities of integrating night aerial operations into existing incident management practices and arrangements.
Night operations also enable emergency services to take advantage of generally milder fire behaviour compared to during the day, including lower temperatures, higher humidity and lighter winds.
The night fire suppression aerial capability was deployed to fires that were determined to be appropriate for capability development and to meet the objectives set out for the trial. In all cases following deployment to a fire, aircrews undertook reconnaissance flights of the fire area and areas the fire was likely to spread into to assess hazards. Based on this reconnaissance and the ground fire control objectives final operational planning was undertaken and go/no go checklists completed.
Through the deployments that were undertaken the experience gained is that:
- Aerial night fire suppression operations are fully feasible and can have positive benefits in achieving fire control or mitigation objectives.
- Evolving systems of work present a repeatable approach to operations, with an effective risk mitigation approach that facilitates safe deployment and operations.
- A turnkey approach was crucial in facilitating flexible integration of a new capability into ground operations however this did have an impact where those human resources were taken off normal day operational duties.
- Hover filling from remote water sources at night is achievable and repeatable with benefits for turnaround times where there are suitable water sources that are in reasonable proximity to the fire area of operations.
- Turnaround times commensurate with daytime operations were achievable on a number of nights – water pick up point location was the key factor.
- Night vision capabilities enhanced visibility of fire in smoky environments with benefits for drop targeting and general observation of fire activity.
- Night vision aerial intelligence operations delivered real time enhanced information to incident controllers and ground teams with demonstrated benefits for fire control objectives.
- Objectives set by ground command teams were able to be addressed by night aerial firebombing operations with benefit to the overall fire control task.
- Ground crews reported increased productivity in their operations and improved safety because they did not need to put people in dangerous locations on the fire ground at night.
- From an effectiveness point of view, night firebombing was able to:
- address the targets and objectives set by ground commanders
- provide tactical results in locations where it was difficult or impossible for ground crews to operate – mitigating potential impacts for the next day
- provide added assurance and guidance for night back burning operations with operational effectiveness gains reported by ground commandeers
- be effectively integrated into ground operations, and
- increase the productivity of existing ground teams and improve their safety.
Incident controllers and incident management teams utilising the capability meant our teams gained valuable experience and information in relation to firefighting at night.
The training, process and protocols established before the deployments have seen the night firebombing capability successfully integrate into a number of incidents across the state, in different terrain and fuel types. The teamwork between agency day and night crews, and crews from Kestrel and Coulson Aviation has been essential to enabling an agile approach, maintenance of high safety standards and collaborative development of an new capability for Victoria.
The outcomes of the activities to date are currently being assessed to inform future planning and capability development as Victoria continues to support innovation and adoption of new approaches to dealing with the impacts of bushfire on communities.
For more information, go to www.emv.vic.gov.au