Recently approved night aerial firefighting operations helped to fight a bushfire 190 kilometres east of Melbourne in early January 2019.
The Rosedale blaze in East Gippsland burnt through 12,000 hectares in less than four days in a fast-moving fire front. The fire threatened multiple communities and trapped firefighters during a sudden wind change, turning the fire towards them.
On the first evening, aerial crews were able to complete 60 water drops, at night, complementing the efforts of firefighting crews on the ground. They also used night vision goggles to map out the fire, helping to provide detailed information to the ground crews.
The firefighting efforts would have been even more effective if crews had been able to conduct daytime survey flights to check for hazards near the most intense part of the fire. Unfortunately, this was hampered by smoke which limited daytime visibility.
The night operations were greatly appreciated by the ground crews, who were better able to fight the fire the next day thanks to the efforts of the water bombers and the mapping that the aerial crews had conducted overnight.
The use of night aerial firefighting operations was trialled in late 2017 by Emergency Management Victoria with approvals from CASA. The approvals, which took two years to develop, allow aircraft to fight blazes for up to four hours after dark if they have been fighting the same fire during daylight hours.
Two operators were certified for the trial: Kestrel Aviation in Mangalore and Coulson Aviation in Ballarat. For the trial exercise the Coulson Aviation Sikorsky S-76 acted as a spotter while a Sikorsky S-61, also operated by Coulson Aviation, and a Bell 412, used by Kestrel Aviation, tackled the fire below.
These night operations were the first of their kind in Australia. The CASA team who worked with operators to obtain the approvals were flying operations inspectors Chris Jameson, Joe Lim and Niels Bunte and Airworthiness Inspector Tom Forrest.