Blue Mountains denied airborne response

FIRE FLY OVERAbject failure by emergency MANAGEMENT
Buena Vista Road, Winmalee, Blue Mountains, 18th October 2013
In anyone’s assessment, except for those in charge, 193 homes lost with 109 damaged is not a firefighting success for the unlucky Blue Mountains communities of Springwood/Winmalee, Yellow Rock and Mount Victoria.


How often do bushfire fighters have to watch on in frustration from their fire trucks on a road towards a bushfire, knowing they are helpless with the tools they have to extinguish it?

In the case of a single house fire in an urban setting, the fire truck is the tried and tested appropriate appliance to respond. Fire fighters can readily drive up to and park right out the front and hose down a house fire.  But applying this classic firefighting method to wildfires in expansive and rugged bushland with steep and often inaccessible terrain is all but useless, like  square peg in round hole thinking.

Yet whenever government announces pre-election funding to bushfire fighting it is kneejerk unimaginatively more fire trucks, costing millions and fixing nothing.

It comes down to political value judgment.


Fire Appliances unable to access remote bushfires
Water, water, in fire trucks everywhere, nor any drop to douse the fires
with apologies to English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’.


Many wildfires spark from lightning strikes in remote terrain and spread into hilly bushland with few access roads.  More so these days, the disturbing arson fetish has become more deadly.

The consequential wildfires in inaccessible bushland country logistically render the fire truck ineffectual as the prime bushfire fighting response.  Fire trucks despatched down along fire trails that are surrounded by bushland on RFS maps provide a false sense of access and ability, but they are death traps for firefighters in fire trucks during a wildfire in extreme conditions.

Just last September during the Londonderry grassfire in outer western Sydney, a fire truck along an outer urban road was overcome by flames and destroyed.  It wasn’t even a fire trail.


Windsor Downs Nature ReserveWildfire beyond the reach of fire trucks through Windsor Downs Nature Reserve, western Sydney, September 2013
[Source: ^ ]


This is where fast targeted airborne response within the first hour of ignition is more effective.  The application of large quantities water bombing of a fire front is surely the preferred lead bushfire fighting response strategy.  This is not to say that ground support is not needed, but the evidence is that traditional truck based ground support as the lead response strategy is simply not cutting the mustard.

But such strategy requires considerable investment and planning and requires expertise.  It demands a military standard realignment of the emergency response co-ordination end-to-end from early warning systems monitoring, to ignition detection, to fast airborne response with all the latest communications technology available.    Clearly this is well beyond the volunteer business-as-usual bush firefighting model that governments have lackadaisically drip fed since colonial times.

On Thursday 17th October 2013, at around 2pm, a bushfire started upwind in Springwood in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.  The fire was purportedly ignited by arcing of touching residential overhead powerlines in strong wind conditions.  The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story a few days later on Sunday 20th October, that preliminary investigations had found that a tree with cables running through its branches is believed to be the seat of the fire that jumped a road then engulfed houses in Springwood, spotting over to Winmalee and Yellow Rock.

Coincidentally, a few days prior to the wildfire tragedies of Thursday 17th that separately impacted Winmalee, Yellow Rock and Mount Victoria, on 15th October New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell had publicly announced the arrival of an additional large firefighting Air-Crane helicopter to be leased from of all places, impoverished Greece.

Nicknamed the ‘Gypsy Lady‘, this lifesaving Erickson S-64 Air-Crane has deserved fame for its massive water bombing ability beyond any Dad’s Army Isuzu truck.

O’Farrell apparently immediately deployed it to fight bush fires according to government propaganda and photos are offered of it in action at Winmalee.  But did it?    So where was it and a second leased Air-Crane, ‘Elvis’, deployed on the critical multiple wildfire afternoon of Thursday 17th October?

Such government performance facts are kept secret from the public.  The government’s promotional photo below of an Air-Crane water bombing bushland over Winmalee was dated Wednesday 23rd October, extinguishing left over spot fires a week later.  So where is the smoke?    Where there is no smoke there is probably no fire.  Was this photo for the media’s benefit?   The caption for this photograph reads verbatim as follows:

“A firefighter looks on as Air-Crane Elvis drops water at the Linksview Road fire near Faulconbridge, in the Blue Mountains (sic) 23/10/2103 (AAP: Lukas Coch).”

Aircrane at Links Road 20131023
Game Changer
We can save you, if we are called in early enough.
The ‘Elvis’ Air-Crane over Winmalee, except the NSW Government’s promotional photo is dated 23rd October 2103?
[Source: ‘NSW bushfires: Crews battle to contain destructive blazes in Lithgow and Springwood’, 20131020, ABC, ^]


It was reported two days after Blue Mountains residents tragically lost over 200 family homes to the bushfires, that a crucial water bombing Erickson S-64 Air-Crane had been grounded at Bankstown Airport during the two day bushfire crisis, because authorities claimed they needed an American engineering and flight crew to operate it.

But then still without such American crews on Saturday 19th October, the Air-Crane was authorised to fly to Springwood, despite the absence of the US crew.

While it will now be used to assist in combatting ongoing fire hazards, the water dumper was forced to sit idle while bushfires ravaged the state on Thursday, Friday and most of  yesterday.  The craft is believed to be the same chopper, nicknamed ‘Ichabod‘, which was flown over on a cargo plane with the previously mentioned helicopter, ‘Gypsy Lady‘ since has been put to use – from Greece to Sydney Airport.

Previously, a qualified American team arrives with the helicopter, enabling it to operate, however the team for the Ichabod were only due to fly to Australia at a later date.   As bushfires started earlier than expected, authorities were caught off-guard and forced to scramble without the use of the second craft.

The Erickson S-64 Air-Crane helicopters are able to waterbomb a fire with 10,000 litres of water and are frequently brought to Australia from the United States for the bushfire season and hot weather.  But due to the Erickson Air-Crane’s absence from the fire front, ordinary choppers used by the RFS were mobilised.  However it’s understand those replacement craft can only dump 300 litres of water, just 3% of that of the Erickson Air-Crane.

[Source:  ‘Critical US water bomber grounded during NSW bushfire crisis’, by Yoni Bashan, State Political Reporter, The Sunday Telegraph, 20131019, ^]


Springwood FireSpringwood, 17th October 2013
Evacuate to where?  We’re at work in the city so how can we save our valuables in time? 
We have no alternate accommodation as the bloody government presumes.
We can’t afford insurance.


So on the 17th October the Blue Mountains bushfires escaped ground control, leading to at least 193 homes lost and at least another 109 damaged and 3,500 hectares of bushland burnt with uncounted wildlife incinerated.  The wildlife cost is always ignored.

No facts are forthcoming from the New South Wales Government about the performance of the firefighting.   Why not?

  1. What was the estimated time of ignitions respectively at Winmalee and Yellow Rock?
  2. How was each wildfire reported and detected by the authorities?
  3. What was the elapsed time from the estimated ignition times and the respective times the RFS became alerted?
  4. What was the elapsed time from the estimated ignition times and the RFS response being despatched (leaving the depots)?
  5. What was the elapsed time from the estimated ignition times and the RFS  response arriving on site to suppress the respective wildfires?
  6. What time was the first house impacted by wildfire?
  7. What time did airborne water bombing on the wildfires commence?
  8. What time did aircrane water bombing on the wildfires commence?


Such facts are not in the government’s interest to publish because it well knows that its gross under-resourcing of bushfire emergency management exposes it to negligence and cost  demands.

It comes down to political value judgment.


Airborne Bushfire Response3% water capacity airborne response simply too little too late


Year on year wildfire and deliberately lit hazard reductions escape control and cause the incineration of vast swathes of  the remaining natural landscape. Some years people and their homes are lucky, moreso a factor of mild weather than emergency management performance.  In 2009 it was Victoria’s unlucky turn.

Across Australia, bushfire detection, response and suppression is repeatedly shown to be so woeful as to be incompetent.

Government avoidance of seriously effective investment into emergency management, sees it instead resort to credibility damage control propaganda and to playing politics.  It hides behind the goodwill of the volunteers, since anyone who dares criticise the performance of noble volunteers can only be publicly vilified.   The government resorts to defeatist attribution of the bushfire emergency to uncontrollable Acts of God – catastrophic weather conditions in which nothing we can do would make any difference.  It runs public announcements of impending Armageddon, Declares a State of Emergency as if it were 1939 Black Friday every summer and its emergency services head are instructed to do supportive drama queen performances.

Now around where the fires started there is little bushland left and little reason to stay.  House values are down and people are selling up and moving off Mountains.

Government’s think their shit never stinks.  Paid ambulance emergency response have a service charter to arrive on site after a 000 call within 20 minutes.  But bushfire fighting has no such accountable charter.   Rather the government’s emergency response duty is delegated to local volunteers charged to do their best with what they’ve got.

Typically, Rural Fire Service bushfire fighters, except for a few government paid white shirts in Homebush, are invariably unpaid volunteer members of the local community.  When an emergency 000 call from a member of the public is despatched to the local brigades, the volunteers pre-occupied with their paid day jobs and have to drop everything.  They are not paid to be on standby at fire brigade depots like the NSW Fire Brigades, irrespective of heightened times of high bushfire risk.  The volunteers are not paid by government at all, and have to rely upon local charities for food and even for bottled water.

The last resort of the under-resourced bushfire brigades is to fight fire with fire.


Backburning at Mount Wilson 20130120Scorched Earthing has become the last sad firefighting bastion of second class firefighters denied effective resources.  Forced to fight slaughter with slaughter, or cruelty with hate.


The Greater Blue Mountains continues to be torched and scarred by its own custodian the National Parks and Wildlife Service.  Its habitat and wildlife are being incinerated without measure or care.

Just like the mining and farming pollution impacts upon the integrity of the once Great Barrier Reef, the Greater Blue Mountains natural values are been irreversibly altered.   Both the Great Barrier Reef and the Greater Blue Mountains need a cry for help and be added to UNESCO’s endangered list.

But putting Australia on an international ‘list of shame’ is but a small price.  It comes down to political value judgment.


[The author is a licensed commercial helicopter pilot]


2 Responses to “Blue Mountains denied airborne response”

  1. Dale says:

    Lets start from the top….

    The fire truck destroyed in September 2013 was a privately owned appliance.
    The S-64 Aircrane was deployed on the afternoon of the 19th…. Having seen it in action.
    You can not state that other bombers have only 3% of the capacity because it is variable… Bambi buckets are 300 litres, this fits under a squirrel helicopter and is ideal for mopping up and suppressing the flanks of a smaller fire. The Wildcats (2nd last picture) that are Bell model 412’s carry 1500 litres.
    Another factor you are already missing is the NSW NPWS RART, RAFT and CRAFT teams that are all aerial response crews that are often on scene within an hour of ignition. Tankers are not out dated, they are required and you clearly have no concept of tactics required to fight a bushfire. Leave it to the experts

  2. Editor says:


    Thanks for your comments.
    Was not the consequence of the “experts” disastrous?

    Bambi buckets on a windy established crowning fire front are useless.

    Paid ambulance emergency response have a service charter to arrive on site after a 000 call within 20 minutes.

    What was the elapsed time from ignition to first airborne water bomb on the fire?

    Other experts approved houses be built on indefensible bushfire prone land – like approving housing on flood prone land.

    Other experts did squat to require home owners make their houses fire resistant.

    Other experts chose to build poles and wires in bushfire prone land, instead of sensibly placing them underground. Cheaper that was, except when they have to pay out a class action claim. We hope the claimants receive enough to rebuild to AS 3959.

    Haven’t we been leaving it to the unpaid bush “experts” since before 1939 Black Friday?

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