Night firebombing has the potential to significantly improve Australia’s aerial firefighting capability in support of hard working ground crews, to better protect life, property and critical infrastructure during major bushfires and emergencies and to extend the daytime aerial operations into the evening to suppress and contain fires.
Night firebombing utilising night vision imaging systems (NVIS) is not new in the world, it is well established in many agencies particularly in the United States, however, it has previously never been undertaken or approved in Australia.
In 2017-18 Victoria’s Night Fire Suppression Operations (NFSO) Trial tested the ability to hover fill helicopters at night and tested the efficiency of NVIS technology to attack fires from the air at a time when aircraft were previously required to be on the ground by last light.
The NFSO trial was initiated by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) in partnership with the Department of Land Water and Environment (DELWP), Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) to support the development of the capability to undertake aerial fire attack during the night using helicopters.
Why firebomb at night?
It is generally accepted that fire behaviour moderates at night with lower temperatures, higher relative humidity and decreased winds. This provides an opportunity to utilise helicopters to extend daytime operations into the night and use the window of reduced fire behaviour to assist ground crews in suppressing fires.
The fundamental presumption is that a capability to undertake aerial fire-bombing during the night could offer real benefit because:
- fire behaviour normally reduces at night thus improving the effectiveness of aerial water bombing
- fire control objectives that have been commenced during the day can be continued, hopefully to a point where the risk to assets overnight is reduced
- it creates an ability to target fires that have a strategic potential to impact communities or significant assets if left unchecked late in the day.
Phase 1 of the Trial:-
Phases 1 of the trial was undertaken in February and March of 2018
The trial included a series of flights demonstrating that night aerial fire bombing, including hover filling from open water sources (dams/ponds), is possible, repeatable and achievable at an acceptable level of risk if undertaken carefully with well-developed procedures and documented systems of work.
The objective of Phase 1 of the trial was to obtain regulatory approval to undertake NVIS firebombing. The objective was achieved and resulted in approvals being issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to allow the aviation companies involved in the trial – Coulson & Kestrel to undertake commercial night fire-bombing activities.
This was a major milestone and allowed detailed operational planning to be implemented to support the trial. The scope of the agreed trial was to undertake activities that demonstrated proficiency using NVIS to:
- hover over a dip tank in the day and night (undertaken at Ballarat Airfield) – Coulson
- hover fill from a lit dip tank in the night and drop water onto targets (undertaken at Ballarat Airfield) – Coulson
- hover fill from an unlit open water source (Miners Rest Quarry near Ballarat Airfield) – Coulson
- hover fill from farm dams and target water drops over a variety of forested terrain (over public land forest) – Coulson
- ground fill from a water tanker and target water drops over a variety of forested terrain (over public land forest) – Kestrel
- hover fill from an open water source – farm dam and then drop water onto controlled fires – fires lit in farm paddock stubble (Glendaruel Area) – Coulson.
- ground fill from a water tanker and then drop water onto controlled fires – fires lit in farm paddock stubble (Glendaruel Area) – Kestrel.
CASA approved both companies to undertake NVIS operations and Victoria is now moving to Phase 2 of the trial to “operationalise” the capability during the 2018/19 bushfire season.
The strategic climate outlook for Victoria and Australia is for increasing volatility in weather systems leading to increased probability for more frequent and more intense bushfires.
Accordingly Victoria is continuing to innovate and explore new technologies to continuously improve the capability to support fire fighting efforts and protect communities.
The approvals granted to the respective companies enable them to continue to develop their capabilities and ensure maintenance of high safety standards as the capability evolves.
The trial activities undertaken in 2017/18 demonstrated that NVIS fire suppression is achievable and one of the key outcomes of the trial was to determine if hover filling from open water sources at night was achievable.
When firebombing at night the majority of NVIS operations across the world undertake ground fill operations, that is the helicopter lands at a designated helicopter landing site (HLS) and fill their tank on the ground before taking off and dropping on the fire and then returning to the HLS to refill.
Hover filling at night (essentially doing what is done in the daytime) on NVIS is not a common practice and it was proven during the trial in Victoria that it is achievable.
Turnaround times for aircraft (the time it takes to fill the helicopter tank, fly to the fire, drop the water on the fire and repeat) are critical to effective fire suppression.
Utilising the most suitable, nearest water source to the fire provides the best turnaround time. Ground filling helicopters is less efficient and has a larger logistics footprint in that pumps, hoses and personnel are required to service the HLS.
Phase 2 of the trial:-
The trial activities were limited to highly controlled fire settings, and did not develop practical experience in a range of fire conditions, topographic settings or test how the capability should integrate with existing real world fire command and control operational arrangements.
The Victorian Government has made a decision to continue with Phase 2 of the trial in 2018/19 fire season to progressively integrate the helicopter capability within existing fire suppression activities through a limited operational trial, and to support a limited trial of large air tankers (subject to regulatory approval).
The program is still in its infancy with a limited number of aircraft capable of and approved to undertake night fire suppression operations, and a very small pool of capable and accredited pilots and aircrew available with the necessary approvals to undertake activities such as hover filling from open water sources whilst using night vision goggles.
Agency personal who have roles in tactical support also have limited practical experience with use of NVIS technology for aerial suppression objectives.
All phases of the trial have been approached with a methodical “Crawl, Walk, Run” mantra, to ensure a step by step safe approach to developing this new innovation.
Phase 2 of the trial will be undertaken during the 2018/19 fire season and will be the first time that night firebombing will be undertaken on bushfires in Australia.
Aircraft involved in the trial are:-
- S61N (Helitack 349) – Coulson Aviation NVIS firebombing helicopter – approx. 4,000 litres capacity – based at Ballarat.
- B412 (Helitack 346) – Kestrel Aviation night capable firebombing helicopter approx. 1500 litres capacity – based at Mangalore.
NVIS Supervision aircraft:-
- S76B (Firebird 322) – Coulson Aviation NVIS, laser and infrared targeting capability – based at Ballarat.
- AS355 (Firebird 318) – Professional Helicopter Service – based at Moorabbin.
NFSO Program Phase 2 Overarching Principles:-
The following principles are intended to guide the overall approach to how the trial is progressed.
Safety of all impacted by the trial will be paramount.
- A Crawl Walk Run philosophy will dictate how the trial is implemented.
- An adaptive approach based on learning through the trial will be applied.
- Night aerial fire suppression flights will not be undertaken unless the pilots / aircrews involved have commenced fire- bombing over the location to observe hazards and other features in the afternoon/ daylight of the day of any proposed night flights.
Deployment to a new fire starting after dark will not occur and is not permitted within the scope of Phase 2 of this trial.
When deployed to a fire the NFSO program will provide a turnkey package of aircraft, personnel (including Air Attack Supervisor and Aircraft Officer) and logistic support to ensure that the capability can be integrated directly into operations.
Operational planning for any NVIS fire suppression operations will be undertaken in consultation with aircrews involved, Incident Controllers as appropriate and the state air desk.
Accountability for final decisions on deployment of NVIS capable aircraft to fire events will rest with the State Response Controller. Criteria to guide deployment may include:
- Distance and time to location (allowing for positioning, fuelling, crew transfer and hazard assessment during daylight hours)
- Consequence for daytime operations and backfilling
- Risk and suitability of terrain or conditions for night fire suppression operations
- Benefit and likely impact of deployment for asset protection fire control.
- Capability development and learning opportunity.
- Likely consequence for fatigue of air and ground crews
- Extensive planning, risk assessment and Go/No Go checklist to inform final decision to deploy NVIS operations or not.
Guidance material will be prepared for Incident Controllers on timing and resource impacts associated with requesting deployment of NVIS capability.
The overall approach to evaluation will be in two parts;
- Cost and resources, and
- Lessons to guide progressive development and deployment of the capability.
Emergency Management Victoria has promulgated overarching metrics including agreed data for all aerial fire fighting activities. These metrics will be used to capture data on the flying operations undertaken in a consistent way to inform understanding of overall flight outcomes and resources required to achieve them.
Whilst effectiveness of targeting will be assessed, it is not expected that at this stage the trial will determine whether NVIS aerial fire suppression is more or less effective than daytime operation given that the trial will include a range of training activities as well as limited operational deployment.
Phase 2 of the trial is essentially undertaking operational deployment of a small package of aircraft to determine how, why when and where the capability would be deployed to help inform future decision making about whether to roll out and expand the capability. The outcomes of Phase 2 of the trial will be shared with other Australian jurisdictions to assist them with decision making about investing in NVIS capability into the future.
We have been very fortunate to have a mature relationship with LA County Air operations that have a well established NVIS program and they have provided guidance and advice as Victoria builds this capability and I thank them sincerely for their assistance to date.
NVIS firebombing has never been done before in Australia, so the only way to find out if it benefits fire-fighters and communities is to do it.
For more information, go to www.emv.vic.gov.au/news/aircraft-ready-for-night-firebombing-trial, www.emv.vic.gov.au/news/night-firebombing-trial-the-inside-story, www.emv.vic.gov.au/news/night-time-firebombing-approved