As Australia continues to burn, Oamaru helicopter pilot Ross Robertson, who has recently returned from fighting bushfires in New South Wales, says crews battling the walls of flame from the sky have the same goal.
“Protect people first .. people first, assets second and everything else after that.”
That extended to the scores of firefighters on the ground trying to contain and extinguish hundreds of fires raging across the country, with seemingly no end in sight.
Mr Robertson returned to Oamaru last week after a 12-day stint piloting a Chinook civilian helicopter after the United States-based company he does occasional work for, Columbia Helicopters, was recruited by its Australian contact to assist the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
He was helping douse flames south of Sydney at the Green Wattle Creek fire, which at present has scorched about 270,000ha of land.
His role was to assist where possible in the pilot’s seat, as well as monitor conditions from the air and inform those running ground operations of any changes.
“It’s a two-pilot helicopter, so you have a command pilot and a co-pilot. In order to help with fatigue, we run with a two-pilot crew of two command pilots and share the duties. To give the guys ample rest time, a third pilot comes in, which was basically myself.
“We were basically on shift for a full day. Your flight availability depends on the situation, the weather and the machine. You can do anywhere from six to eight hours flying a day. What you’re being tasked to do depends on where the problems are.”
The large twin-rotor helicopter carries a roughly 10,000-litre bucket that can be filled in about 20 seconds when submerged in a body of water and in fewer than three minutes when pumps are used.
Mr Robertson said the environment was “very tense” for all involved.
“With fires there is always an unknown because so much depends on the conditions – the heat of the day versus the wind direction of the day. It determines where the threat is. It’s quite variable.”
People were coping as well as they could, which was not easy in such devastating circumstances, he said.
“The mood’s quite sombre. They accept that forest fires occur, but I think just the length of time and the earliness .. that’s really taken it out of the people. It’s quite sombre, but they are really appreciative of everyone [who’s] helping. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes that people don’t see.
“When you are doing your job it’s very matter of fact. When you have time to look at what’s going on, you really feel for the people.”
And the job is not yet over for him, with another dash across the Tasman looming.
“On Saturday I will be going to the Kosciuszko National Park, where two fires have merged on the New South Wales and Victorian border. There’s a place there called Jindabyne, which is about 183 miles [295km] inland from where we were.
“A big task of the helicopter will be what we call mopping up. We’ll clean up a lot of hot spots by using ground crews. Ground crews .. are identifying where those targets are and we come in with water and put water on those targets, and then those hot spots will be grubbed.”
The forecast for the next week was for high humidity levels and some rain, which he said was “good for everyone”, to a point.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t put out the fire; it suppresses it. You’ve still got a lot of fuel there, particularly from logs that have been burned, because they are cindering and when the conditions change, they flare up.”
Mr Robertson, who has worked for Columbia Helicopters on and off since 1996, has fought similar blazes in the past.
He battled fires from the air in the United States in the early 2000s, after several stints in Papua New Guinea flying similar helicopters to the Chinook.
He first travelled there in 1987, at the time the oil and gas industry started to boom.
His job was to fly in fuel, equipment and infrastructure to remote areas in the country’s highlands.
Mr Robertson has also flown in South America and completed some of his training in Russia and Siberia.
However, before all of that he trained closer to home at the North Otago Aero Club, firstly as a fixed-wing pilot before moving on to helicopters, which was funded by working at Alliance Group’s Pukeuri plant, as well as “two or three other jobs”.
“I’ve flown all my life.”
He said if it was not for the support of his current employer, Farmlands Real Estate, and his family, he would never have had the chance to fly around the world.
“They understand the situation and have worked with what I am doing. It’s a bit of a duty I suppose .. but they have been good enough to allow it.