Gingin airfield used to help fight Red Gully bushfire

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Michael Parker from DFES and air operations manager Mike Stewart watch as fire retardant for the Red Gully bushfire is unloaded from a C-17A Globemaster at Busselton Margaret River airport. Picture: Department of Defence

GINGIN satellite airfield was used as a forward operating base in the recent fight against the Red Gully bushfire, which started on January 2.

The 25 Squadron (25SQN) staff based at Pearce air base were called on to provide support to the Department of Biosecurity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) in the form of infrastructure support to aerial firefighting efforts.

The Department of Defence said the Gingin satellite airfield was the closest sealed runway to the fire front facilitating safer operations.

A spokeswoman said supporting infrastructure such as sealed taxiways, aircraft shelters and big hardstand areas allowed DFES and DBCA increased firefighting capability and increased responsible fatigue management of personnel.

“Being a RAAF Base, a high level of security meant supporting ground equipment could be left on-site for the duration of the effort again leading to earlier starts and later finishes for the air assets,’’ she said.

“The equipment was moved in on the Sunday (January 3) and wasn’t fully removed until eight days later.

“Given the rate of effort of flying training at Pearce, RAAF was able to provide DFES and DBCA with exclusive use of the aerodrome which again supported safety and time on task.

“When the second LAT (large air tanker) came over from VIC, RAAF Gingin provided an ideal base for the aircraft that directed the two LAT retardant drops.

“That is, that Aero Commander didn’t need to go all the way back to Busselton between drops.

“RAAF Gingin was activated on Saturday, January 2 and not stood down until Sunday, January 10 – both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft used the facility.

“With the core rotary operation supported from Gingin oval, the RAAF base provided a safe ‘back-up’ landing zone for the helos further enhancing aviation safety.’’

Prior to the Red Gully bushfire and in preparation for the high-risk weather season, the McGowan Government commissioned Coulson Aviation to provide a C-130H large air tanker (LAT) to supplement the state’s fleet of rotary and fixed wing aerial firefighting aircraft.

Western Australia’s densest bushland is found in the southwest corner of the state so the large air tanker was based at the Busselton-Margaret River airport.

Current AIR 7000 project works underway at RAAF Pearce have displaced the threshold on the main runway by 600m, which has limited payload capability on some aircraft including the large air tanker.

As the Red Gully bushfire emergency extended into its fourth day, a call for help by the WA Government led to the second C-130 large air tanker being sent to WA from Victoria.

Forklift driver Leading Aircraft Woman Sophie Berthelot, Warrant Officer Adam Olding and Leading Aircraft Woman Angelina Prountzos, unload the aerial fire retardant for the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services from the Air Force C-17A Globemaster aircraft at Busselton Margaret River Airport. Picture: Department of Defence

Large air tanker crews rely on smaller Aero Command aircraft to provide drop-zone target information to enhance the firefighting effort.

The round-trip from Busselton to the fire front was taking around three hours including refuelling and retardant reloading.

With one large air tanker operating, the aero commander was able to accompany the large air tanker on the roundtrip for refuelling.

But with the introduction of the second large air tanker, a forward operating base was required for the aero commander to refuel and ensure maximum readiness on station.

Pearce Air Base Command Post Officer-in-Command Steve Barrett had been assisting the coordination of support since the fire broke out.

Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Barrett said during a press conference, the DFES Commissioner explained he was worried that the fire ground was not only narrow, but very long and that combined with the strong, gustily southeast winds meant that a forecast south-westerly wind change would give the bushfire a new front of around 130kms.

“I received a number of calls confirming the displaced runway at Pearce that restricted access to the large air tankers but that confirmed that Pearce refuellers could support the aero commander, in-turn increasing the rate of effort of the two LAT aircraft,” FLTLT Barret said.

On Thursday afternoon a new fire broke out, south of the existing fire and a lot closer to residential areas again intensifying the aerial firefighting effort.

Pearce refuellers were once again called on to support but another problem was developing for DFES, they were running out of fire retardant.

A further call for help to the Emergency Management Australia director general identified a surplus stock of retardant held by NSW RFS at RAAF Richmond.

Defence upgraded a Defence assistance to the civil community category One to category Two and issued two task orders – one for a C-17 to transport 50 bags of retardant from RAAF Richmond directly to Busselton-Margaret River airport and the second to continue the support provided from RAAF Pearce and Gingin.

A mobile air load team from 25SQN air movements section drove to Busselton and unloaded the C-17.

The Globemaster was an impressive site alongside two civilian C-130 aircraft on the tarmac and must have created an air of excitement for an airport that only has a handful of big aircraft in any given week.

DFES aviation manager Brad Bourke was impressed by the support of the mobile air load team from 25SQN.

“I have never seen a military air load team in action before and was impressed by their efficiency, competency and professionalism,’’ he said.

“The support we received from the Royal Australian Air Force was very much appreciated over what was a very intensive week.’’

This year is RAAF’s 100th anniversary.