Australia’s Defense Minister defends Army helicopter crew’s 45-minute delay in reporting details about bushfire started by its landing light

The helicopter was damaged by the fire

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. February 4, 2020.

As we reported in February, a helicopter operated by Australia’s Army inadvertently started a bushfire January 27, 2020 in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It was caused by heat from the landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter as it set down in the remote Orroral Valley for a crew break.

In the coming days, the Orroral Valley Fire grew very large, covered about 80 percent of the National Park, and crossed over into New South Wales where it burned homes. Wildfire Today’s very unofficial estimate based on satellite imagery is that the blaze burned over 250,000 acres.

New information uncovered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reveals that the crew did not report the specific location of the fire until they landed 45 minutes later at Canberra Airport.

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

From ABC:

When the blaze threatened to consume the aircraft, the crew took to the skies — only to watch as their helicopter downdraught fanned the flames into what would become a formidable firestorm.

But internal Defence reports on the incident, released to the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, show the helicopter’s pilot did not radio the coordinates in the time it took to return to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport.

That lack of information sowed confusion as ACT fire crews were dispatched to different parts of the park in a desperate scramble to locate and extinguish the blaze.

In documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws, Defence made it clear the top priority for the helicopter crew was safety, given the aircraft had been damaged in the fire.

Today, in a statement from the Defence Minister’s office, Ms Reynolds defended the aircrew returning to Fairbairn air base at Canberra Airport before relaying the fire’s location to authorities.

She said the airport was the “nearest safe landing area with access to emergency services” for the fire-damaged aircraft.

“Defence advises that the crew were focussed on the immediate safety of the passengers and the flight emergency situation,” the statement from Ms Reynold’s office said.

“Defence advises that during the flight, the crew relayed the in-flight emergency situation to Canberra Air Traffic Control and their commanders.

“Immediately following an emergency landing at Canberra Airport, the aircrew passed the location of the fire to ACT Emergency Services Agency.”

The ACT’s Emergency Services Authority has said the Australian Defence Force’s actions were appropriate.

But others, including former ACT emergency services commissioner Peter Dunn, said the 45-minute delay robbed ACT emergency services of the crucial first hour to stop the fire from growing beyond control.

Today current ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan again defended the Army helicopter crew, saying they were following safety protocols.

But Ms Whelan acknowledged the 45-minute delay in firefighters being provided the location of the bushfire was “disappointing”.

“It is very disappointing and I know the entire Canberra community, as was I, we would love to have had information within seconds of that occurring,” she told ABC Radio Canberra.

“What we do know is the aircraft and the pilot focused on the safety of their team and got them back to the ACT airport very safely and we deployed our assets within a very short timeframe.

“It is very unfortunate, it was a really challenging season for all of us.

map bushfire in Namadgi National Park
Sentintel-2 satellite imagery of the bushfire in Namadgi National Park south of Canberra, Australia. January 30, 2020.

Landing light on military helicopter ignited bushfire south of Canberra, Australia

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of a Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

Several bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have kept firefighters busy in recent days. The Department of Defense admitted that one of them two weeks ago was caused by heat from a landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter. It burned within a kilometer of Tharwa, a suburb south of Canberra.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“The fire started during routine aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance work being conducted in the area in support of our local firefighters and authorities,” Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said on behalf of the Department of Defense.

Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said the helicopter was using the lights to help it land in smoky conditions, but the heat set a fire that grew rapidly and damaged the aircraft. He said defense was investigating the issue but operating procedures would be changed so that the landing lights were not used in extreme conditions.

It is reportedly the first time a fire has been started by a helicopter landing light.

Smoke from another fire in the ACT that shut down the Canberra Airport for a while was caused by beekeepers checking hives. The fire started January 22 and for several hours threatened homes and businesses.

From the ABC:

The Beard fire jumped the Molonglo River on Thursday and came close to the suburbs of Beard, Harman and Oaks Estate. It also merged with a second fire on Kallaroo Road, which began in the same suburb of Pialligo earlier in the day.

The combined fire reached 424 hectares in size and was at emergency alert level for much of the afternoon, but by 9:00pm was down to 379 hectares.

The hives are part of a national honey bee surveillance program that regularly checks for the arrival of exotic pests that might threaten Australia’s bee population.That process uses smokers to calm the bees so the hives can be inspected, which requires lighting fuels to generate the smoke. The hives are maintained on behalf of the ACT Government by Canberra Region Beekeepers — the program is usually run through state agriculture departments in other jurisdictions.

Air tankers based in Richmond, New South Wales have been busy recently. Between January 26 and 31 a DC-10, Tanker 911, flew 22 missions, while T-137, a 737, flew 12. Their destinations were in or near the ACT and in southern NSW.

Tanker 131, a C-130Q based in Avalon, Victoria completed several missions north of Melbourne and along the Victoria/NSW border.

Australia: government being sued for tactics used on bushfire

GavelThe government of New South Wales is being sued over their choice of firefighting tactics used on a fire in 2003 that burned through Canberra’s southwestern suburbs on January 18.

The legal proceedings have been going on for years and have advanced to the Australian Capital Territories Court of Appeal.

Below is an excerpt from the Canberra Times:

…Four people were killed, 435 injured, and 487 homes and 23 commercial and government buildings were lost.


On Thursday morning, counsel for QBE Regina Graycar criticised the approach taken to backburning near the Goodradigbee River containment line, which was being used to stop the fire spreading. Firefighters did not get time to carry out their plan to backburn near the river.

Ms Graycar said they must have known they didn’t have time to backburn before the next hot day, which is generally considered to be seven days away.
Backburning is generally needed to finish two days before the next hot day, she said.

Failing to recognise the time needed, Ms Graycar said, broke one of the basic rules of firefighting, something she described as “bushfire 101”.
The ACT Court of Appeal will hand down judgment at a later date.

Video: bushfires in Australia

Martin Greenwood, a volunteer firefighter with the Australian Capital Territory Rural Fire Service in Australia sent us the video above. It is a compilation of scenes from various fires he has been on.

Another video he made that features firefighting helicopters is at Fire Aviation.

Thanks Martin!

Documented fire tornado

Fire Tornado path, Australia
Fire Tornado path, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae

We have previously written about events described as “fire tornadoes”, but research led by Rick McRae in Australia has us convinced that those should be more accurately called fire whirls, not tornadoes. We were never very comfortable using the term “fire tornado” for those events, but it has become common and we were not aware, until now, that a phenomenon many times more powerful existed.

Fire Tornado documentation, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae
Fire tornado documentation, Australia. Credit: research led by Rick McRae

Mr. McRae documented what was unquestionably a real fire tornado that occurred near Chapman, ACT, Australia during the McIntyres Hut Fire January 18, 2003.

Researchers had speculated about the ability of a fire to produce a tornado, but this is the first documentation of the creation of a true tornado by the convection column of a large fire.

In a video interview (scroll down and view the second video) and in a paper published October, 2012 in the journal Natural Hazards, he described a fire tornado as occurring over a vegetation fire, a process now known as the phenomenon of “pyro-tornadogenesis”. Under certain conditions, a fire can cause a pyro-cumulus cloud to form, which is not in itself unusual over a large fire. If the cloud continues to build, it can generate lightning, rain, and hail, much like a conventional large thunderstorm. And large thunderstorms can sometimes propagate a tornado, which is what happened over the McIntyrres Hut Fire.

Mr. McRae’s research determined that the fire tornado was moving across the ground at 30 kph (19 mph), had horizontal winds of 250 kph (149 mph), and vertical winds of 150 kph (93 mph).

Fire tornado, broken-off trees
Aftermath of a fire tornado, showing 12-15 meter tall trees broken off 2-3 meters above the ground. From research led by Rick McRae.

Dr. Jason Sharples, also associated with the research, described the differences between a fire tornado and a fire whirl:

Tornadoes are associated with thunderstorms and as such they are anchored to a thundercloud above, and are able to sporadically lift off the ground. Fire whirls, on the other hand, are anchored to the ground and do not require the presence of a thunderstorm.

Rick McRae is a Special Risks Analyst at the ACT Emergency Services Agency.


Thanks go out to Chris