Page 4877 - Week 15 - Wednesday, 14 December 2005

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Bushfire fighting—use of helicopters

MR GENTLEMAN (Brindabella) (6.10): Last Wednesday was a typical hot summer’s day in Canberra and a perfect time to launch the new specifically designed helicopters to assist us during this year’s bushfire season. The helicopters, based at Canberra airport from December this year until February next year, are a Bell 212 and an Aerospatiale AS350BA Squirrel. The Bell 212 can carry 1,600 litres of water in a belly tank or transport eight firefighters, whilst the Squirrel can carry 600 litres of water in a Bambi bucket or transport five firefighters. The helicopters are set up for aerial water bombing, reconnaissance and transport of firefighters. The aircraft are operated by Heli-Aust, a Bankstown-based company, in association with Wildcat Helicopters of British Columbia in Canada.

The helicopters are here as a joint effort between the ACT and New South Wales governments, as well as the commonwealth government, through the national aerial firefighting centre program, an initiative that arose from the bushfires of 2003. To assist in the operation of these aircraft the remote aerial firefighting crews—or RAFT—from the ACT RFS are undergoing training with the aircraft, which have been fully operational since last Wednesday. I note that ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers are highly skilled firefighters and they are very happy that they will have these resources as support during the height of the bushfire season.

The launch of the helicopters was attended by the minister for emergency services, John Hargreaves, the territories minister, Jim Lloyd, and me. It was quite a pleasure for me to meet the pilots who will be flying these aircraft, in particular, a Canberra local, Mr Matt O’Brien. Members may recall that it was Matt, along with the Chief Minister, who saved the life of another pilot in 2003. Matt was saying how good it would be to fly around the areas he grew up in, particularly the mountains, where he spent a lot of time biking and walking. He reflected on how these aircraft will be a great timesaving measure, as well as being able to do something positive in any situation.

The other pilot is Mr Tyler Hupp, who is here from British Columbia, Canada. This will be his first Australian bushfire season. The aircraft will allow us to have eyes in the sky and will be put to use on fires in areas that are otherwise difficult to get at. Mr Peter Dunn, Commissioner of the ACT Emergency Services Authority, explained that the helicopters have the ability to put water, foam and personnel exactly where needed. They also shorten response times in getting to fires in remote areas, and assist in keeping fires small and easy to control.

After the formalities of the launch had concluded, pilot Matt O’Brien took the Squirrel up for a bit of a test run on its return to Fairbairn and I was lucky enough to be able to join him. We took off from Parliament House, circled the house and headed west towards the Brindabellas, before going back to Fairbairn. As we headed away from Parliament House, Matt asked if we would like to see how the Brindabellas have recovered since the fires.

As we flew over Dairy Farmers Hill we had a fantastic view of the site of the new arboretum and how the fire-affected areas were recovering after the 2003 fires. As we headed around, Matt pointed out where the bushfires came through over Mount Coree.

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