I recently returned from a trip to Australia, and I can tell you, the extensive fires you were seeing on the news were not exaggerated. The devastation was everything you would imagine and more. Although I arrived about a week after the worst of the firestorm weather had passed, the evidence was abundant in many places, including a visit to an active fire ground in Myrtleford, Victoria.
For those not familiar with Australia, Myrtleford, Victoria is about 30 miles east of where images of the skies turning red as massive bushfires raged in the coastal towns of the greater Gippsland area.
Watching the small city that was the rural Ovens fire district bustle with activity from first light to last light was something I will not soon forget. Aerial firefighting crews from Canada, the USA and dozens of helicopters and crew members from multiple states all working together to extinguish this blaze, one of 38 blazes that were burning at the time around the state of Victoria was nothing short of impressive.
At the heli-base, the action never ended from the time the first helicopter took off to the time the last landed. A small army of refuellers, mechanics, aerial controllers, fuel truck drivers, pilots and other crew worked feverishly to be prepared for the next helicopter to come in. Each making sure that there was fuel ready, a pilot change if needed and any other small detail is taken care of before each aircraft from one of half a dozen companies working on the fireground came visible on final approach.
As each landed, those same crew members became a small ant colony that seemed to set upon the aircraft as the rotors finally slowed to a stop, working with the speed of a formula one pit crew to make sure that the aircraft spent as little time idle as possible before spooling up again and heading right back to the fireground to drop several thousand more gallons of water on the unrelenting flames.
After watching several hours of this procession, I also went out to one of the larger lakes the helicopters were fueling from. After about 10 minutes taking pictures, my escort from the Victorian Department of Water, Land and Planning Department stated we needed to leave – and fast, pointing at the hilltop plume that we had seen as we pulled in to the lake filling site.
The smoke had turned from grey to black indicating a feeding fire. Right as I looked at the lowest crest of the range in front of us, fire crested the range, shooting flames about 70 feet in the air. It was definitely time to go.
As I left the next morning, the firebase was shut down thanks to the smoke from the direction change dropping right to the ground making it 0/0 visibility, I hoped for some relief for the crews there that looked like they could all use a day off. The very next day, for the first time in several months, it rained, giving everyone on the fireground a reprieve. Two weeks later, the skies opened for what seemed like a biblical event. Many of the same towns around Australia that fought bushfires that took thousands of homes, properties, and several lives – were now facing the threat of flooding, some areas now under feet of water.
There was a saying in Victoria where I grew up “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” as the state I grew up in had a reputation for having four seasons occur in one day. But it seems Australia is now in the throes of another saying: “it never rains, it pours.”
If anything, Australia, and Australians are experts in overcoming adversity, from droughts to fires, to floods, we always take care of each other and rebound. I can only hope that the rebound this time includes the lessons learned from this year’s fire season and that those lessons are used to push for more aerial firefighting support in the future. As the world saw, it is much needed.