Australian Army helicopter crew that started bushfire didn’t report the exact location for 45 minutes

Defense Minister defends Army helicopter crew which was flying damaged aircraft back to airport

Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of a Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

As we reported in February, a helicopter operated by Australia’s Army inadvertently started a bushfire January 27, 2020 in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It was caused by heat from the landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter as it set down in the remote Orroral Valley for a crew break.

In the coming days, the Orroral Valley Fire grew very large, covered about 80 percent of the National Park, and crossed over into New South Wales where it burned homes. Wildfire Today’s very unofficial estimate based on satellite imagery is that the blaze burned over 250,000 acres.

New information uncovered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reveals that the crew did not report the specific location of the fire until they landed 45 minutes later at Canberra Airport.

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. January 30, 2020.

From ABC:


When the blaze threatened to consume the aircraft, the crew took to the skies — only to watch as their helicopter downdraught fanned the flames into what would become a formidable firestorm.

But internal Defence reports on the incident, released to the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, show the helicopter’s pilot did not radio the coordinates in the time it took to return to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport.

That lack of information sowed confusion as ACT fire crews were dispatched to different parts of the park in a desperate scramble to locate and extinguish the blaze.

In documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, Defence made it clear the top priority for the helicopter crew was safety, given the aircraft had been damaged in the fire.

Today, in a statement from the Defence Minister’s office, Ms Reynolds defended the aircrew returning to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport before relaying the fire’s location to authorities.

She said the airport was the “nearest safe landing area with access to emergency services” for the fire-damaged aircraft.

“Defence advises that the crew were focussed on the immediate safety of the passengers and the flight emergency situation,” the statement from Ms Reynold’s office said.

“Defence advises that during the flight, the crew relayed the in-flight emergency situation to Canberra Air Traffic Control and their commanders.

“Immediately following an emergency landing at Canberra Airport, the aircrew passed the location of the fire to ACT Emergency Services Agency.”

The ACT’s Emergency Services Authority has said the Australian Defence Force’s actions were appropriate.

But others, including former ACT emergency services commissioner Peter Dunn, said the 45-minute delay robbed ACT emergency services of the crucial first hour to stop the fire from growing beyond control.

Today current ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan again defended the Army helicopter crew, saying they were following safety protocols.

But Ms Whelan acknowledged the 45-minute delay in firefighters being provided the location of the bushfire was “disappointing”.

“It is very disappointing and I know the entire Canberra community, as was I, we would love to have had information within seconds of that occurring,” she told ABC Radio Canberra.

“What we do know is the aircraft and the pilot focused on the safety of their team and got them back to the ACT airport very safely and we deployed our assets within a very short timeframe.

“It is very unfortunate, it was a really challenging season for all of us.


map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. February 4, 2020.

Why 2,500 liters of retardant was dropped in Australia’s capital city

It happened near the National Emergency Services Memorial

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Tamara Penniket.

Wednesday’s accidental drop of 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of fire retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia led to a hazardous material response from the Australian Capital Territory Fire & Rescue.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the inadvertent retardant drop came from a Single Engine Air Tanker, an Air Tractor AT802 with a Gen3 door. The SEAT encountered significant turbulence on climb-out from the retardant base at Canberra airport on the way to the Orroral Valley Fire.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Screenshot from ABC News video.

“In maneuvering the aircraft through the turbulence, the pilot accidentally activated the drop button,” Mr. Alder said. “The drop system was armed, in accordance with normal climb-out procedure, to enable a rapid emergency drop [should it become necessary].”

He said the aircraft operator is reviewing their procedures to see if the risk of an inadvertent drop can be reduced, while maintaining appropriate safety for the aircraft and pilot.

The retardant affected Parkes Way, a parking lot at Rond Terrace, a large roundabout with a pond, and the south end of Anzac Parade, the street that leads to the Australian War Memorial. The drop was a short distance northwest of the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Elise Fantin.

Mr. Alder said the SEAT was following a route to the fire that avoided overflight of residential areas.

Several decades ago in the United States large air tankers worked out of a retardant base at the Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles. The story goes that a lady who lived near the airport was known for complaining about the noise from the firefighting aircraft. Her criticism had little effect until the day one of the tankers had a problem on climb-out and had to jettison the load. And, as luck would have it, the retardant landed on that poor lady’s house. Not long after that the tanker base was permanently closed.

Air tanker drops retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia

About a mile from Parliament House at the capital

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ACT Emergency Services Agency.

An air tanker dropped retardant in the city of Canberra, the capital of Australia on February 4.

The aircraft was working on the Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The ACT Emergency Services Agency said the aircraft “encountered turbulence causing 2,500 litres of retardant to be released on Parkes Way.” A number of cars were coated with the retardant, and judging from the photo below, at least one person.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
From this retardant shadow it appears that at least one person was affected by the retardant drop in downtown Canberra, ACT, Australia February 4, 2020. Photo by Lukas Coch, AAP.

The fact that 2,500 liters (600 gallons) were released leads one to guess the aircraft may have been a Single Engine Air Tanker, unless it was a partial load from a large air tanker.

The turbulence could have forced a low flying air tanker to suddenly and unexpectedly lose altitude, and the pilot might have jettisoned the load in order to help regain altitude and control. Or, the G-forces produced stress causing the tank doors or other hardware to fail. Regardless, we are happy that retardant was the only thing that fell out of the sky on Tuesday.

ACT Fire & Rescue worked with the Environmental Protection Authority to assess the situation at the impacted area which included the carpark at Rond Terrace and Anzac Parade at Rond Pond.

The retardant was close to the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

(UPDATE, Feb. 10, 2020: More information has become available about the cause of the retardant drop)

Heat from helicopter’s landing light starts fire in Australia

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of a Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

(This article first appeared on Wildfire Today)

Several bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have kept firefighters busy in recent days. The Department of Defense admitted that one of the fires two weeks ago was caused by heat from a landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter. It burned within a kilometer of Tharwa, a suburb south of Canberra.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“The fire started during routine aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance work being conducted in the area in support of our local firefighters and authorities,” Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said on behalf of the Department of Defense.

Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said the helicopter was using the lights to help it land in smoky conditions, but the heat set a fire that grew rapidly and damaged the aircraft. He said defense was investigating the issue but operating procedures would be changed so that the landing lights were not used in extreme conditions.

It is reportedly the first time a fire has been started by a helicopter landing light.

Smoke from another fire in the ACT that shut down the Canberra Airport for a while was caused by beekeepers checking hives. The fire started January 22 and for several hours threatened homes and businesses.

From the ABC:

The Beard fire jumped the Molonglo River on Thursday and came close to the suburbs of Beard, Harman and Oaks Estate. It also merged with a second fire on Kallaroo Road, which began in the same suburb of Pialligo earlier in the day.

The combined fire reached 424 hectares in size and was at emergency alert level for much of the afternoon, but by 9:00pm was down to 379 hectares.

The hives are part of a national honey bee surveillance program that regularly checks for the arrival of exotic pests that might threaten Australia’s bee population.That process uses smokers to calm the bees so the hives can be inspected, which requires lighting fuels to generate the smoke. The hives are maintained on behalf of the ACT Government by Canberra Region Beekeepers — the program is usually run through state agriculture departments in other jurisdictions.

Air tankers based in Richmond, New South Wales have been busy recently. Between January 26 and 31 a DC-10, Tanker 911, flew 22 missions, while T-137, a 737, flew 12. Their destinations were in or near the ACT and in southern NSW.

Tanker 131, a C-130Q based in Avalon, Victoria completed several missions north of Melbourne and along the Victoria/NSW border.

Portable air tanker base at Canberra used for the first time

It is the first time a portable retardant base has been used at Canberra

Air tanker 166 RJ-85 reloading Canberra Airport
Air tanker 166, an RJ-85, reloading retardant at Canberra Airport. Photo provided by the airport.

A portable air tanker reloading base at Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory was used recently for the first time. Christening the new facility was Conair’s Tanker 166, an RJ85 from Canada that is spending the Northern Hemisphere winter down under. T-166’s main base this summer is Richmond (near Sydney).

The aircraft was working on a wildfire near Michelago, New South Wales (map).

A total of six large air tankers from North America have been working in Australia during their 2018-2019 summer.  Three other tankers with their primary base at Richmond include a 737 (T-137), a C-130Q (T-134), and another RJ85 (T-165). And based at Avalon airport in Melbourne, a C-130Q (T-131), and an RJ85 (T-163).

Air tanker 166 RJ-85 reloading Canberra Airport
Air tanker 166, an RJ-85, reloading retardant at Canberra Airport. Photo provided by the airport.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Isaac.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Air Base Operator training in New South Wales

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service conducted an Air Base Operator joint training exercise last week for the new Large Air Tanker Base in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

Photo credit: Adrian.

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

Video: firefighting helicopters in Australia


Martin Greenwood, a volunteer firefighter with the Australian Capital Territory Rural Fire Service in Australia sent us the video above that he put together of firefighting helicopters down under.

Another video he made that features mostly ground-based firefighting is at Wildfire Today.

Thanks Martin!