A FLEET of up to seven firefighting helicopters working the bushfires in the Eurobodalla on the Far South Coast of NSW has called Narooma home for the past week.
One by one on Monday evening, all seven birds and their crews came home to roost as a thunderstorm was replaced with the rainbow over the impromptu helo base on private land on a headland south of Narooma.
Among those securing his chopper for the night, as others performed routine maintenance checks, was agricultural and firefighting pilot Steven Murray.
The family business Forest Air Helicopters founded by his father John Murray is one of several contracted to the Rural Fire Service and National Parks for aerial firefighting duties.
The air attack supervisor remembers when Mr Murray was but a small boy hanging around his father John’s choppers.
Now he had followed in his father’s footsteps, arriving at Narooma earlier on Monday from the large fire in the Newcastle area and before that he was fighting fires out of Canberra and Wollongong.
The aviation is indeed a tight-knit community and the death of Trangie-based firefighting and agricultural pilot David Black at the bushfire at Ulladulla last week hit all the pilots hard.
“It does make you think that you have dangerous job when something like that happens,” Mr Murray said.
They both attended the recent Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia conference on the Gold Coast.
While Mr Black flew a fixed-wing crop dusting style aircraft, Mr Murray flies a Vietnam-era UH-1H Huey helicopter built in 1969 that racked up 1200 hours of flying time in the war zone with a US Army Air Cavalry regiment.
It was brought over to Australia in 2000 by his father and had been flying with the company ever since.
Mr Murray spent six hours flying over the Corn Trail fire near Nelligen west of Batemans Bay that on Monday was still listed as being contained.
His “Bambi Bucket” slung under the Huey held 1300 litres and was fitted with a pump so he could suck water out from creeks and dams only 30cm deep.
He was able to do as many 15 drops an hour depending on the distance from water.
He reckoned Monday’s damp, cool weather had done a lot to knock back the fire, allowing RAFT (Remote Area Firefighting Team) firefighters to be choppered in and winched down onto the fireground.
The firefighting efforts and fleet of choppers working the Corn Trail fire at Nelligen and the Buckyjumba fire at Belowra are being coordinated by National Parks.
The helo base on the private land was organised by the Narooma office of National Parks and the air crews and their support teams were staying at Narooma motels.
Along with the private contractors from aviation companies as far away as Tasmania, there was also the National Parks distinctive Park 2 helicopter as well as a bright red chopper emblazoned with RFS logos.
National Parks & Wildlife Service area manager Far South Coast region and deputy incident controller Preston Cope said between 10 and 30 people, a mix of heli based crew and ground crews, have been staying in Narooma since October 19.
Top of the Town Motel has been managing most of the accommodation and coordinating other rooms in Holiday Lodge Motor Inn and Coastal Comfort Motel, he said.
“Glennie from Top of the Town has been organising all the motels and has even done the crews washing – a great effort and much appreciated!” he said.
“Obriens Hotel has also supplied meals and have stayed open to accommodate our needs as crews come in late as has Top of the Town.”
The Sec 44 Eurobodalla was declared on the October 17 - This is when the NPWS Buckyjumba fire became part of the joint agency fire control effort based at Moruya Fire Control. The Corn Trail Fire and others which have started since the declaration are also being dealt with by the Sec 44 Incident Management Team at Moruya.
The RFS has now downgraded the Buckyjumba fire to Patrol status and neither it or the Corn Trail fire yesterday were showing signs of active fire.
Day of aviation tragedy on Far South Coast
Thursday last week turned out to be a day of aviation tragedy on the Far South Coast of NSW.
Word had just come through mid-morning that the Victorian pilot ferrying helicopter parts to Moruya in hired Cessna had just been located deceased in the wreckage on a mountain slope near Mt Hotham.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority coordinated the search for Euroa pilot Peter Brereton that involved five helicopters and two fixed-winged aircraft.
He had been missing all of Wednesday after taking off from Moruya in the Cessna 182 heading home to Mangalore after dropping off the chopper parts for the fleet of choppers now based at Narooma.
Mr Brereton, a recipient of the National Medal for long service, had been a CFA member for 39 years and was a volunteer at Balmattum, near Euroa, since his retirement from Shepparton.
Then almost unbelievably police and ambulance crews got word from the RFS working the fire in the Budawang National Park west of Ulladulla that another plane had gone down.
That plane ended being the crop-dusting style fixed wing aircraft being flown by equally respected Trangie-based firefighting and agricultural pilot David Black.
His plane had crashed into a smouldering hillside with its wing found some distance from the main wreckage.
The Albion Park based crew of Ambulance Rescue 23 helicopter itself faced hazardous conditions during the recovery of Mr Black.
The rescue helicopter faced extremely windy conditions forced the winching operations to be aborted twice.
Special Casualty Access Team paramedic Rod Wheatley said his crew faced threat of oncoming fire and running low on fuel as they attempted to reach Mr Black at the crash scene.
“The conditions were very challenging and even frightening at times,” he said.
“Fire was coming towards him and if he was still alive we wanted to get him out before it arrived.
“We had two attempts to winch in and had to abort both times at the top of the tree level,” he said.
“The aircraft was being blown around in the wind, it became too dangerous, I was being spun around.
“As the helicopter was buffeted left or right in the wind, sometimes I was pulled sideways 20 to 30 feet at a time.”
He said the crew made the tough decision to leave the man’s body at the crash scene.
“The conditions and situation just didn’t allow us, unfortunately, to recover his body at the time,” he said.
The Trangie community meanwhile had been left in shock following the death of local pilot David Black, who leaves behind a wife and three children.
Narromine Shire mayor Bill McAnally was at loss for words when he heard the news on Thursday afternoon.
"It is a terrible shock and absolute loss to the community to lose not only a great and brave man but a loving husband and father,” councillor McAnally said.
"It is a tragic loss of life and as we are a small community, this accident touches everyone deeply.”
Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Mr Black’s death was “a tragedy for the fire fighting community but first and foremost it's a tragedy for this man's family.”
"He's a husband with young children and we're all acutely aware that there's a family suffering today because their dad didn't come home."
NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell also offered his condolences.
“It serves to highlight the danger all our emergency personnel and volunteers face every day while protecting our community.
“They put themselves in danger on our behalf and we are all truly grateful.
“This loss will be a particular blow to the brave men and women who have worked so hard saving property and protecting lives during this crisis.”
Police in Victoria and NSW are now liaising with Air Transport Safety Bureau investigators to determine causes for both accidents.