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From Arctic Circle to Tambo Crossing
Canadian pilot Ray Horton has travelled the long way around to fight bushfires in Victoria.
One of the world’s most respected aerial firefighters, Ray and the aircraft he flies – the Large Air Tanker ‘RJ’ – have become a welcome sight in Victoria’s skies over the past three summers.
So how did this one time “city slicker from Vancouver” find himself in Tambo Crossing, the Mallee and points in between?
His story begins in Canada’s Arctic North. The young pilot was building his hours in 40-below conditions, doing some “fantastic fun flying” as he puts it.
Then, one summer, he found himself flying supplies into the fire camps that are a base for summer firefighting in the Arctic summer.
It was the season that changed Ray’s life.
In quick time, he had a job with Conair, the Canadian aerial firefighting operator whose aircraft and pilots work fire seasons in North America, Europe and Australia.
He started in the Bird Dog – the observer aircraft that guides the larger air tankers to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews. After that, it was 10 years flying the tankers themselves, many of them 1950’s US military aircraft repurposed for aerial firefighting.
Antsy for a change, Ray spent 10 years as an Air Canada captain. But civilian life was not for him.
“I had been spoiled fighting forest fires,” reflects Ray. “Once fire gets in your blood, there is always the challenge of trying to win. I had a tough time letting go of the challenge.”
Ray re-joined Conair and in 2014 arrived for his first fire season in Victoria. He’s returned every season since with RJ, the ‘next generation’ Large Air Tanker with which he’s been deeply involved since the aircraft’s infancy.
A veteran of fires seasons around the world, Ray had one word about the challenges of Victorian conditions – “Wind.”
“Most of the time when we are chasing fires in Victoria it is because of high winds and the high temperatures – they seem to come together,” says Ray.
“In North America, sure we get high winds. But then you’ll get a slew of thunderstorms come through. They may start 50 fires overnight. But then the wind will die down and you methodically get to as many fires as you can.
“Here in Victoria, that same storm will come through but with really high winds. Then you have your fuel types – the eucalyptus and others. The fires run much faster here – much, much faster.”
The other major difference, Ray believes, is the sheer number of volunteers working the fire ground in Victoria.
“That is something we just don’t see in North America. We don’t see the volunteer crews you have here. It’s amazing what Australia can do, particularly in Victoria with CFA and the number of volunteers.
“Here, we will typically see crews on the ground by the time we get to the fires. In North America, there are only so many crews to go around.”
Air crew and ground crew as one is a theme emphasised by Ray and his aerial crew colleagues.
“We know that we don’t put fires out,” stresses Ray. “We are here to allow the firies to get in and to support them. Hopefully we can make the difference that allows them to catch the fire.
“Our challenge – and the one we are called in for – is to put the water or retardant where the ground crews need it. When there are high winds and high heat, the challenge is really on us.
“Put it this way, it’s a long way to fly not to make any difference.”