Big guns called in

December 02, 2016

Kestrel managing director Ray Cronin with Elise, the Erickson Air-Crane which forms part of the local aerial firefighting fleet this summer.

Meet Elsie.

The eye-catching Erickson Air-Crane, currently housed at Kestrel’s Mangalore Airport base, is no stranger to Australia’s fierce bushfires and will once again be a key figure in Victoria’s firefighting efforts this summer.

Elsie is one of 17 Kestrel-contracted aircraft that will be put to work this bushfire season and has been flown in from the United States especially for the hot Australian summer.

‘‘Air-cranes are a special aircraft with a special capability. There’s no out-of-season work for them here, so we sub-contract them off a company called Erickson Air-Crane,’’ Kestrel managing director Ray Cronin said.

Air-cranes are the pinnacle of the firefighting fleet. Elsie’s 7500-litre water tank can be filled in about 60 seconds, making it one of the most effective ways to combat bushfires, particularly in terrain that can not be easily accessed by on-ground crews.

For more than 25 years, Kestrel has been contracted by the Federal Government to form part of the nation’s firefighting efforts.

Kestrel’s 17 contracts this summer range from the air-cranes down to the medium bombers and light platforms.

Aircraft only fly from dawn to dusk for safety reasons. When the pilots get the call, they must be in the air and on the way to the fire within 15 minutes.

‘‘Essentially what happens on a normal day over summer, once the aircraft are on contract, from the phone call we have to be in the air in 15 minutes,’’ Mr Cronin said.

‘‘Other than the air-cranes they’re all single pilot so we don’t carry unnecessary crew with us.

‘‘We suck the water up in 24 seconds in the medium bombers which carry 1500l and we’ve got the capability of adding fire retardants as well.

‘‘This aircraft that will be based here from next week is a medium machine and that sits here on what’s called pre-determined dispatch and that works from a call from authorities, so it’s the same as launching a fire truck.

‘‘The pilot will get a pager and it will tell him the location of the fire, and he looks at the fire danger index and if it’s in a certain criteria, he’ll launch straight away. If it’s not a high risk day he won’t launch, but there’ll be discussion about whether he should or not with the state air desk.

‘‘If it’s a critical day then bang, you just go and get there and if you get called back it doesn’t matter.

‘‘The air-cranes are different, they just get up and go straight away.’’

Things are never quiet at Kestrel.

Its firefighting commitments once lasted about three months, but with the warmer weather seemingly lasting longer each year, that time frame has more than doubled to about seven months.

With a particularly bad fire season predicted, authorities have left nothing to chance.

‘‘Every one of our aircraft are contracted out this summer. We have none left in the shed,’’ Mr Cronin said.

— Seymour Telegraph

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