(left to right): Kay Wraith and Kevin Safe with Acting Chief Officer Gavin Thompson
Victoria’s fire aviation fleet plays a vital role in detecting, observing and fighting fires during the bushfire season. Behind the scenes its CFA’s volunteers that stand ready at air bases across the state to support our airborne firefighters.
The largest CFA-operated air base and staffed entirely by CFA volunteers, Hamilton Air Base in Victoria’s south-west has grown to become CFA’s premier air base in support of firefighting aircraft.
From humble beginnings just a few years ago to a state-of-the-art facility today, the air base is recognised as the primary aerial fire support facility in western Victoria. It has a reputation of being professionally run and highly-efficient in its operations. Volunteers at the base are fully-qualified to swiftly reload bombers with water, foam or retardant. The team’s communications unit also provides aircraft monitoring.
The air base was established by Bochara and Dunkeld brigade volunteer Leighton Wraith AFSM, a volunteer of more than 40 years and a licensed pilot. Leighton saw the need for better ground support and arrangements for deployment in the region after the 2013 Grampians fires. He was adamant there should be a permanent air base to service and support firebombing aircraft at Hamilton Aerodrome and strongly advocated for it to be established.
Leighton sadly passed away in March 2021 but his legacy continues through the hard work of the 30 volunteers who not only maintain the base, but are active members of reloading crews and on call 24 hours a day. The volunteers come from 16 brigades in the district with members rostered on as teams during high-risk fire days to ensure the base can respond.
During the 2019-20 bushfires, the effective deployment and efficient reloading of firebombers from the airbase prevented the need to obtain resources from elsewhere in Victoria. In the period mid-December to mid-February 2020 crews loaded 310 air attack aircraft – on some days 52 aircraft in one day.
Teamwork is the highest priority in this dangerous and dynamic work area. Members are rostered on as loading crews to manage fatigue during major periods of operation. All members complete loader training and regular drills to ensure their skills are up to date. Members are also trained in first-aid and hold special licences such as forklift so they can manage all aspects of base operations.
In addition to supporting aerial firefighting operations, Hamilton Air Base hosts crews from CFA and other emergency services agencies from across the state for bomber loading training. The base is also used for mentoring air attack supervisors and air base managers.
Air Base Manager and CFA volunteer of more than 50 years Simon Wilson said the team winning the award was wonderful recognition of Leighton’s efforts to establish the air base.
“Leighton was the driving force behind the air base and the one who had the idea of utilising volunteers to support air operations,” Simon said.
“We’re carrying on his legacy. It’s very much a team effort and the spirit is really high among our members.
“Our response times are fantastic and we feel as though we are making a real difference and contribution.
“Receiving a Spirit of CFA Team award is an honour and a fitting way to recognise the contribution Leighton and our volunteers have made to the South West Region and broader state air base operations.”
- (left to right): Kevin Safe and Kay Wraith with Acting Chief Officer Gavin Thompson