Bushfire in Australia burns over 2 million acres, becoming a “gigafire”

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A bushfire that started October 11 in Western Australia 120km southeast of Broome burned 880,000 hectares, or 2,174,527 acres. Dry winds from variable directions and high temperatures made it very difficult to suppress. The remote location and a lack of water restricted the tactics to fighting fire with fire, constructing firelines with heavy equipment, and using aircraft.

When the wind direction changed last week, firefighters had to shut down the Great Northern Highway, National Route 1.

bushfire Western Australia
Satellite photo of bushfire in Western Australia, October 15, 2018. NASA.

When we coined the term “megafire” for wildfires that exceed 100,000 acres, it was in the back of our mind that if a fire reached 1 million acres it would be called a “gigafire”.

In spite of the enormous size of the blaze in Western Australia there were no fatalities or damage to major structures.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) urged residents at Thangoo Homestead, Barn Hill Station, and Eco Beach last Tuesday to evacuate or actively defend their property.

DFES West Kimberley area officer Ben Muller said there were approximately 100 personnel fighting the fire.

The city of Broome was given the all clear Thursday morning.

Below is an excerpt from an article at TheWest.com:

Thangoo Station manager Rex McCormack said about half of the pastoral station was burnt but people and livestock were unscathed and water tanks and other important assets were undamaged.

“It is one of the biggest fires I remember from the last 10 years, but we felt safe in staying and defending the property,” he said.

“I didn’t feel scared in staying, I would have been more worried about that damage that could have occurred if I wasn’t there and it was more about being a resource to DFES.

“We were out back burning the property until about 1am last Wednesday, then up again at 6am.

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

(UPDATED November 2, 2018)

Australia hires six large air tankers for their bushfire season

They will also have scores of helicopters and single engine air tankers on contract

Air tanker 137, 737-300
Air tanker 137, a 737-300, is slated to make its world firefighting debut in Australia. This photo was taken at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018.  Coulson photo.

(This was first published at Fire Aviation)

Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) has virtually settled on its lineup of the country’s firefighting aircraft for the 2018-2019 bushfire season which is getting underway. It was just a few years ago that they had no large air tankers, but this season they will have six privately owned large air tankers on contract, including three RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one 737.

Large air tankers:

  • RJ85, T-165  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond)  –  already in place;
  • B-737,  T-137 (Coulson)  based in Sydney (Richmond) – subject to  regulatory approvals;
  • RJ85, T-166  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond)/Dubbo;
  • C-130Q, T-134 (Coulson) based in Sydney (Richmond) – already in place.  (This is an “extra” for the 2018-19 season only, considering the predicted above-normal potential of the fire season on the east coast of Australia);
  • RJ85, T-163  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Melbourne (Avalon);
  • C-130Q, T-131 (Coulson) based in Melbourne (Avalon)

Coulson’s recently converted 737 just went through its first flight tests for the U.S. Interagency Airtanker Board in September, dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. For it to be used in Australia it must first receive their regulatory approvals.

Single Engine Air Tankers

In addition, NAFC will have 51 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) on contract across the country,  including 2 amphibious water-scooping Fire Bosses. Another 8 SEATs have been contracted directly by State agencies. The SEATs can also be supplemented by other aircraft on Call When Needed (CWN) arrangements if required.

Helicopters

There will be 77 Helicopters of all types for a variety of roles across the country.  This includes six Erickson S-64E Air Cranes, as well as five Type 2 /Type 3 helicopters that will be specially equipped for intelligence gathering, with gimbaled sensors and on-board image processing, mapping, and transmission gear.

Night flying helicopters

Near the end of the 2017-2018 bushfire season the Aussies experimented with dropping water from helicopters at night in Victoria.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial, February, 2018.

This season one Type 1 helicopter (a Coulson S-61) based at Ballarat, Victoria and one Type 2  helicopter (a Kestrel Aviation Bell 412) based at Mangalore, Victoria will have a Night Vision Imaging Systems or Night Vision Goggles (NVIS/NVG) for water dropping. Several other Type 2 and Type 3  helicopters based in Victoria and New South Wales will be capable of NVIS mapping, reconnaissance, supervision and aerial ignition.

“We aim to continue and extend the helicopter NVIS firebombing trial in Victoria, operationalizing the learnings from the Victorian trial earlier this year, but it will be in small, careful steps” Richard Alder, General Manager of NAFC said. “At this stage”, he continued, “it is anticipated that night firebombing will only occur on fires where the aircraft crew has operated during the day – so at this stage there won’t be any initial attack at night.”

Night flying air tanker

Mr. Alder said they may experiment toward the end of the 2018/2019 bushfire season with a fixed wing large airtanker (the C-130Q, T-131) using NVIS/NVG, but there is much work still to be done to design the trial and obtain the necessary regulatory approvals.

Continue reading “Australia hires six large air tankers for their bushfire season”

United States asking Australian firefighters for help

The Australian ABC News Service reports the US is asking for 188 specialist firefighters

(UPDATED at 12:36 p.m. MDT August 1, 2018)

On Wednesday, August 1 the National Interagency Fire Center issued a press released about the United States requesting firefighters from Australia and New Zealand to assist with suppressing wildfires in the Western United States. In addition to our report on July 31 (below) the NIFC release had this additional information:

The request is for fire personnel from both Australia and New Zealand.

The request is for Division Supervisors, Safety Officers, Task Force Leaders, Strike Team Leaders, Heavy Equipment Bosses, Helicopter Managers, Helicopter Crew Members, Structure Protection Specialists and Liaison Officers. These wildland fire management positions have been identified as “unable to fill” through the U.S. dispatch/coordination system on a daily basis in recent weeks.

In addition to the firefighters sent from “down under” in 2008 and 2015, they also assisted during the 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2006 fire seasons. U.S. firefighters traveled to Australia to assist with their fire seasons in 2010, 2009, 2007 and in 2003.

(End of update)


(Originally published at 2:41 p.m. MDT July 31, 2018)

The United States is seeking help from the other side of the world to help suppress some of the 140 large active wildfires that have burned a cumulative 1.2 million acres. We confirmed with Randy Eardley, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, that the process of requesting help from Australia is underway but all of the details have not yet been worked out.

Much more information about the effort was published by the Australian ABC News Service which had an article about the request on Monday (US time). Here is an excerpt:

The National Multi-Agency Coordination Group (MAC) in the US formally requested assistance over the weekend, seeking 188 specialist firefighters from Australia and New Zealand.The firefighters would be deployed for up to 42 days in the California area.

Candidates from each Australian state will be placed in a national pool, with the most suitable candidates chosen this afternoon ahead of their deployment to the US on Friday.

South Australian Country Fire Service spokesman Brett Williamson said the most suitable firefighters to come forward in South Australia so far had experience fighting fires in areas with rough terrain and forests.

“We are finding it is more the state-based ones — in particular [those from] the South East and the Port Lincoln area … that are the ones who will probably have the beneficial skills that the United States [is] searching for,” Mr Williamson said.

The US has asked for paid staff rather than volunteers.

“At this stage, we are still calculating the numbers of who is available, who will be available from their employers to be released and then they will go into a national pool and that national pool will then basically be cherry-picked for the best people that are suitable for the job,” Mr Williamson said.

Australia also sent help in 2008 and 2015. The 2015 request was for 71 fire managers and specialists who came from Australia and New Zealand. They arrived in Boise August 23 for a one-day induction to learn about current fire behavior, fuels, and weather conditions. After the orientation, they were assigned to large fires. The 2015 contingent included 15 Division Supervisors; 15 Task Force/Strike Team Leaders; 15 Helicopter Managers; 10 Heavy Equipment Bosses; 10 Safety Officers; 4 Regional Liaison Officers; and two National Liaison Officers.  Fifteen of the total were from New Zealand.

There were 45 firefighters in the 2008 group.

NSWRFS firefighters British Columbia
File photo: On August 8, 2017, 40 firefighters from Australia’s New South Wales Rural Fire Service joined 60 others from across the continent as they began their travel to British Columbia to assist with wildfires in Canada. Screenshot from NSWRFS video.

Assistance from Australia and New Zealand is a good fit primarily because their fire organizations are very similar to the United States national fire organization in training requirements and structure.

In 2010 the United States and Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen emergency management cooperation between the two countries. One of the objectives was to streamline processes for emergency management authorities in both countries to facilitate the exchange of personnel in response to emergencies.

Burn scars of the fire that burned into Tathra, NSW

(Originally published at 3:26 MDT March 27, 2018)

These satellite images show before and after photos of the March 18, 2018 bushfire that started southeast of Bega, NSW, Australia, and burned into Tathra, destroying at last count 69 homes.

The images were captured by the Sentinel-2 satellite system (March 26, 2018, 11:02 am local time) and were analyzed by BigDataEarth.com.

map tathra NSW wildfire homes destroyed
Map showing the area in New South Wales between Bega (on the left) and Tathra (on the coast on the right) before the fire.
map tathra New South Wales wildfire
Map showing the area in New South Wales between Bega (on the left) and Tathra (on the coast on the right) after the fire. The brown areas represent the burned area.

69 homes believed destroyed in New South Wales bushfire

Above: A fire burns structures in Tathra, New South Wales. Photo credit: NSW Rural Fire Service.

(Updated at 8:30 a.m. MDT March 19, 2018, US time)

At least 69 homes were destroyed and 39 damaged in the bushfire that spread into the coastal community of Tathra in New South Wales according to the Rural Fire Service.

As the fire ran into the town many residents took refuge on the beach, but very strong winds, smoke, and blowing sand convinced some to leave and head for the evacuation center in Bega.

The fire has burned approximately 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres).

map fire tathra
Map of the fire near Tathra, New South Wales. NSW RFS.


(Originally published at 11:03 a.m. MDT March 18, 2018, US time)

A fire that started southeast of Bega, New South Wales has burned east to the Pacific coast destroying homes in its path. The official tally of the affected structures is not available but Campbell Fuller, communications director of the Insurance Council of Australia, said “We are hearing several dozen properties” burned.

map bushfire Tathra new south wales
Google Earth file photo of the area in Tathra NSW affected by a bushfire. Compare this image to the one at the top of the article.

From the Daily Telegraph:

Earlier on Sunday night Bega Valley Shire Council mayor Kristy McBain said up to 35 homes had been lost and the concern was now about people stuck in Tathra as the roads in and out of the town were closed.

Many of the destroyed homes were in the small coastal community of Tathra, population 1,622. After the fire ran east for 5 miles (8 km) from the Bega area to the coast, jumping the Bega River, the wind shifted to come out of the south, slowing the spread. Officials advised residents to continue to monitor conditions and be prepared to enact their bush fire survival plan should the fire threaten again. The evacuation center is at Bega Showground.

map bushfire Tathra new south wales
Map of the bushfire between Bega and Tathra NSW. Map by NSW RFS.

The NSW Rural Fire Service video below shows Air Tanker 390 making a drop in Tathra.

The latest size of the fire released by the Rural Fire service at 23:10 March 18 local time was 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres).

bushfire Tathra new south wales
Air Tanker 390 makes a retardant drop near structures in Tathra, NSW. Photo credit, NSW RFS.