Aside from the large fire now extinguished in Western Australia, Australia’s fire season is off to a slow start. Which I am sure is a welcome relief to the thousands of ground firefighters and aircrews that fought so hard to save lives and property during last year’s ‘Black Summer’ blazes.
The aerial firefighting industry was forced into a quandary last year as the Australian fires burned. Traditional crews and aircraft beginning their winter training in the United States were still deployed overseas. For the first time in recent history, the industry was stretched to its limits, forcing calendars to be rewritten and training and certification periods to be pushed back.
2020 gave the industry plenty of challenges, that is for sure. The complexities of working while the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world were many, yet the industry and the many that work within it prevailed. Providing much-needed support to Australia and continue their operations locally across the globe for multi-national companies.
If I had to sum up what I thought of the industry in 2020, I would say “resilient.” As an industry, companies, and individuals rally together to get the job done. Whether it’s fighting fire with multiple assets or developing new technology that continues to push the boundaries of what aerial firefighters can accomplish, it always gets done.
One of the more sad things I reflected on while looking back at 2020 was people’s loss. We can replace aircraft, but the people who crew them we cannot. Often leaving behind a trail of distraught friends and family as they pass on. Last year we saw the loss of a Coulson C-130 during firefighting operations in Australia. Taking with it the flight crew of Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson, and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan, all military veterans who joined the fight in Australia’s worst year in recent history for fires around the country. Each with a common goal, that of which to help their fellow man.
I had just arrived in Australia to cover the fires a few days before the accident. The outpouring of support from the Australian people was something I saw and often heard in the days after the crash. “We will forever be indebted to the enormous contribution, and indeed the ultimate sacrifice that’s been paid as a result of these extraordinary individuals doing a remarkable job,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a farewell near Sydney airport for 32 U.S. firefighters who were returning home after weeks on duty on Australia.
The resounding thing that I often notice in the aerial firefighting occupation is that everyone picks themselves up and dusts off to keep going, no matter what. Some losses are harder to move on from, yet the industry prevails. Because if it didn’t, people would suffer. An aerial firefighter’s greatest goal is to save lives and property, so work goes on.
As we leave what was regarded as a horrible year with 2020 behind us, I hope that 2021 brings us fewer large fires that tax global resources. Still, I hope that we can fly safer and take that extra few minutes to make safety checks and discuss flight planning and deconfliction strategies to make sure that everyone makes it home each night. Although I know we will lose some; I can only hope that we make gains on last year and that each loss gives us pause to think a little more about safety before we fly.