Report of fatal air tanker crash in Australia

Several media sources in Australia are reporting that an air tanker crashed west of Ulladulla in New South Wales and the pilot, the only person on board, has been confirmed dead. The Australian network ABC reported that a wing snapped off the aircraft before it went down.

The aircraft was fighting a fire in very rugged and steep terrain near Wirritin Mountain about 15 nautical miles west of Ulladulla when it went down at about 10:10 a.m. AEDT on Thursday.

The crash started another bushfire which, along with high winds, was hampering efforts to reach the pilot. Other firefighting aircraft were called to the area and were attempting to slow the spread of the fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family and coworkers of the pilot.


UPDATE AT 12:51 p.m. MDT, October 24, 2013: A second aircraft has crashed in Australia. In this case it was a light plane supporting the firefighting effort. More information is at Fire Aviation.


Thanks go out to Ken

Previous assignments of U.S. firefighters to Australia

The United States has sent firefighters to Australia to assist with bushfires twice in the last five years.

U.S. firefighters in Australia
U.S. firefighters in Victoria, Australia, February, 2009. Photo by Wol Worrell.

With the bushfire season in southeast Australia heating up much earlier than normal, some are wondering if the United States is going to send wildland firefighters down under to give them a hand. In the last eight years this has happened four times, in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010. At least two of those deployments were in January and February during their fire season that typically runs from December through February. With this very unusual October siege underway in New South Wales, which has been described as the worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years, and with more than 200 homes destroyed, these conditions are an outlier, very different from the normal fire occurrence.

We checked with our sources in Boise and there are no immediate plans underway to send American firefighters to Australia. But the down under bushfire season has not even officially started — it could be an interesting summer below the equator.

In February, 2009, the United States sent 60 wildfire specialists to Victoria to assist with operations, planning and logistics. That included two thirteen-person teams specializing in rehabilitating burned areas, and one 20-person suppression team. I believe the “suppression team” was a thrown-together group of experienced firefighters formed into a crew, since no hotshot crews were on duty in February. More information about that deployment is HERE, HERE, and HERE.

In January, 2010, the United States again sent firefighters to Australia. That time it was approximately 17 people, with most of them being assigned within Victoria. Some details about that trip are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The international assistance has worked in both directions. In July, 2008, 44 Australian and New Zealand firefighters came to the United States to assist with fires in California. The first deployment of firefighters from Australia to the U.S. was in 2000.

Wildfire conditions in Australia the worst in 40 years

Hall Road Fire, Balmoral Village
Hall Road Fire, Balmoral Village October 17, 2013. NSW RFS photo.

Australian fire officials on Sunday warned that residents of New South Wales are facing the worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years. Already more than 200 homes have been destroyed and another 120 damaged. One man has died so far trying to protect his property. The weather forecast for Wednesday is even more severe.

The last time firefighters faced a situation like this was in the late 1960s.

Monday some areas received lightning with little or no rain.

lightning and fires NSW
Map showing lightning (in yellow) and fire locations (in blue). October 21, 2013. NWS RFS image.

Assistant police commissioner Alan Clarke said mandatory evacuation orders would be enforced in some areas, describing the risk as “far more extreme” than in past fires.

“Police will be doing forced evacuations if the risk is necessary,” Clarke told reporters.

“At the end of the day we hope we have buildings standing, but if we don’t have buildings standing we don’t want bodies in them.”

The typical wildfire season in Australia is from December through February, but this year firefighters are having to deal with numerous large fires weeks earlier than normal. The contracts for large Erickson Air-Crane helicopters that can carry 2,650 gallons of water were not yet in effect but two of the ships were rushed into service to assist firefighters.

Map of State Mine Fire at 1:20 a.m. October 22, 2013
Map of State Mine Fire at 1:20 a.m. October 22, 2013. NSW RFS.

One of the largest fires is the State Mine Fire about 70 km northwest of Sydney between Lithgow and Bilpin which as burned 42,751 hectares (105,000 acres). It is likely to merge with the New York Road/Mt. Victoria Fire just to the south, which is 2,017 hectares (5,000 acres).

Weather radar showing wildfire smoke Australia
Weather radar showing smoke from the State Mine Fire at 06:42 UTC, October 17, 2013.

Two sources for current maps of fires in Australia: New South Wales Rural Fire Service, and ESRI.

Springwood Fire
New South Wales Rural Fire Service fighting the Springwood Fire near St Columba’s School, October 18, 2013. Photo by Ellie Southwood.

Australian Prime Minister works a night shift on the fire line

Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott gives a thumbs up after a night shift helping to backburn with the NSW Rural Fire Service

The new Prime Minister of Australia, in office for a month, apparently is not your ordinary chief of state. During the recent rash of bushfires in New South Wales, Tony Abbott worked a night shift helping back burn near Bilpinwith with his Davidson Fire Service Brigade from Sydney’s Warringah Pittwater Rural Fire District. Mr. Abbott has been a volunteer with the Rural Fire Service Brigade for 13 years and is qualified as a specialist breathing apparatus operator, chainsaw operator, and tanker driver.

There are reports that the Prime Minister’s firefighting activities have been a challenge for his Australian Federal Police security detail charged with his protection.

In addition to serving as a firefighter, Mr. Abbott in the past has volunteered as a teacher in remote Aboriginal Communities. Before he was elected he promised he would continue to live one week a year in similar communities after becoming Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with fellow firefighters
Prime Minister Tony Abbott with fellow firefighters from the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade.

Dozens of homes destroyed in bushfires in southeast Australia

Officials of Australia’s Rural Fire Service are saying that hundreds of homes may have burned in southeast Australia as more than 100 fires burned in New South Wales (NSW), with 36 still uncontained.

The NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell, said that it would be a miracle if there was no loss of life. Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, warned that several people were likely to have been killed if the estimate of hundreds of properties destroyed proved to be true, as historically an average of one life has been lost for every 17 houses.

These fires are following an unusually early start to the Australian fire season last month, well ahead of their summer which normally reintroduces fires to the landscape.

One of the fires spread from Lithgow towards the Blue Mountains, running more than 25km (15 miles) and burning over 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of bushland.

ABC News in Australia has an excellent video report about the fires.