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Wayne Rigg on Canadian deployment
CFA Aviation Officer Wayne Rigg didn’t stray from his area of expertise during his first overseas deployment – not counting Tasmania – working for almost five weeks as a helicopter coordinator or helco in British Columbia (BC). It’s a role equivalent to Victoria’s air attack supervisor, managing rotary and fixed wing aircraft.
With three days’ notice, a Victorian-led contingent of some 80 Australians travelled to Canada under a memorandum of understanding between the two countries. The Australian team were made up of incident management team personnel skilled in logistics, planning and operations along with senior fireline personnel and aviation specialists.
The majority of the Canadian fires were started by lightning. Wayne first worked the China Nose fire about three hours west of Prince George; a fire that was about 4000 hectares when he arrived.
“The ruggedness and remoteness of the fire meant we used a lot of aircraft, particularly helicopters, at the fires I was on,” said Wayne.
“The air tanker program and the dispatch of aircraft were impressive and effective. They send aircraft out in packs carrying from 3000 to 14,000 litres each, ensuring sufficient weight of initial attack. Canada uses Convair CV580s; Air tractor 802s which went out in a pack of four; four packs of Fire Boss float planes which can scoop water off lakes and waterways; and Electras which carry up to 14,000 litres, plus a range of other fixed wing firebombing aircraft. The larger air tankers returning to base to refill with retardant can turn around in under 15 minutes.
"The infrastructure in place to service the aircraft is impressive and we can learn a lot from Canada in relation to these operations. I’m convinced there’s a place for large air tankers in the Victorian firefighting fleet. We certainly have identified that we have the capability gap in our current fleet which we need to address to meet our ever growing and changing risk.
“In my role as helco, I was talking to ground crews about supporting them with water bombing the active fire and supporting mineral earth breaks so the fire didn’t cross them. They call a rakehoe trail a ‘hand guard’ or a ‘cat guard’ named after caterpillar dozers.
“There are similarities between how Victoria and BC manage and fight fires, and we can slot into their operations after a half or full-day briefing. I’d say 90 per cent of the terminology and tactics are the same although we did have to be careful with the difference in our accents.
“On one occasion, I did a media interview where I talked about Australian ‘resources’ being in Canada to help only to be asked why we would bring ‘racehorses’ to fight fires!
“Similarities aside, the fuel types and temperatures are very different. We were working with spruce and deciduous trees and very few water carrying fire appliances compared to Victoria’s large fleet of tankers and slip-ons. It was not unusual to see anything from two to 15 kilometre hose lays with floating collar tanks and pumps set up to relay the water from the abundance of available water in lakes, rivers and beaver ponds.
“An enormous amount of plant [heavy machinery] was used. We were in established logging areas so there was already a lot of machinery out there available to the firefight.
“The work rate of some of the unit crews was phenomenal and some of the most impressive work I have seen – it was a credit to them. Their tool of choice was a polaski which is a combination of a pick and an axe used in dry firefighting.
“There were a number of fishing and hunting cabins in the fire area and crews go in and set up mobile sprinkler systems. They do the same thing on wooden bridges to protect those structures.
“They won’t always put crews on remote fires. They monitor them and allocate their crews where the risk to communities exist; a very sensible approach.”
Wayne moved to the 25,000 hectare Mt McAllister fire which was burning in some places near the snowline and within sight of glaciers. The deployment briefing included information about bears, moose and cougars which the Australians joked might be like our legendary ‘drop bears’. Not a bit. Wildlife were displaced by the fire and some ground crews had to withdraw because of bears and cougar with Wayne called in on one occasion to “buzz a sector” to scare off the bears and cougars.
Crews generally worked 14 days on, three days off with huge trucks hauling in demountable buildings to base camps within striking distance of the fires. This is where both ground crews and incident management teams were housed and fed for the duration. Canadian crews were a combination of staff and contractors with no volunteers.
“Not only have we started some lifelong friendships and networks with Canadians,” continued Wayne, “but we’ve also cemented relationships with other Australian fire services personnel. Almost every state and territory was represented and you can’t quantify the value of working alongside them and strengthening that bond. It highlighted opportunities for further resource sharing and the exchange of people in targeted roles both nationally and internationally. Fires are getting more challenging and we can’t be inward looking. We need to share resources and knowledge the world over.
“In addition to the actual firefighting, the added benefit of going over in my role was the chance to compare and validate the differences in operations, particularly in aviation. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about shared learning and understanding and continual improvement.
“I think the reasons we fitted in so well with the Canadians were our training and system similarities, certainly, but we also have similar attitudes. They were just so thankful we were over there. There was high praise for the Aussies’ effort and attitude and a high level of respect. It was a job really well undertaken by the whole Australian contingent.”
Canadian fire agencies have travelled twice to Victoria in recent years: in 2006-07 and 2009.