APM Forests - Fire Protection

Oliver Raymond (bio)


The Company’s fire protection was very conventional when I took over the role of Fire Protection Officer in about 1982. We had a fleet of 4x4 and 6x4 fire tankers, several D7 sized dozers and some Caterpillar graders. All our fire crews were Company employees and had, in the main, many years of accumulated experience at wildfire suppression. We had 6 registered CFA Brigades, which meant that we could give the rank of CFA Captain to 6 of our Incident Controllers. This was handy at times, although there was a tacit agreement amongst local CFA volunteers that our Incident Controller would be in charge of fires on our property and they would be in charge of fires outside our property.

Then came a time of upheaval.

The National Safety Council (NSCA), headed by the legendary John Friedrichs, started growing. Our first experience of their firefighting capability was at a fire in the Strzeleckis at which our Incident Controller was Frank Coppock. Frank came back from the fire full of praise for the assistance that the NSCA Hughes 500D helicopter fitted with a collapsible Bambi bucket had given to the fire fighters. He said they would have had extreme difficulty controlling the fire, which was burning on a very steep hill, without the aid of the helicopter.

A week before the Ash Wednesday fires in the Western District, we had a day on which the fire danger rating was as high as it was on Ash Wednesday with a follow up cold change including 120 km/hr south westerly winds. Three potentially dangerous fires started that day. Fire one was deliberately lit on top of the Haunted Hills, just south of the Prince’s Highway. It burnt down towards the town of Morwell and the two open cut brown coal mines, Yallourn and Morwell. The NSCA had a large Bell helicopter with a belly tank fighting the fire. The Company fire tower on the Haunted Hills called in a south westerly wind change of 120 km/hr, and the helicopter put down on the north eastern edge of the fire to wait out the change. The fire at that point was burning in grass, and when the change hit, the fire burnt straight under the helicopter, with the two crew members inside. Luckily, the fire was travelling so fast that it only scorched the paint work on the bottom of the helicopter. As a result, Friedrichs got me to give a quick fire behaviour lecture to his helicopter crews two days after the fire!

Somehow, this fire was brought under control shortly after the change.

A second fire started after the SW change, as a result of some burning cow dung from a small fire that had been extinguished earlier in the day being blown across the bare control line that had been graded around the fire. This fire burnt across a paddock that had virtually no visible grass in it, crossed a 55 metre wide road easement containing a bitumen road that had a pipeline ditch alongside it, and slammed into one of our plantations. Within minutes, the NSCA had three Hughes 500D helicopters fitted with Bambi buckets water bombing the fire, which was just south of the Latrobe Valley Airport. Luckily, that was the NSCA’s base at the time, so their response time was excellent. We backed up the helicopters with a dozer, and our plantation loss was only about 3 ha
The other major fire on the day was caused by power lines clashing together, and ironically it burnt into the State Electricity Commission’s storage area for the construction of the Loy Yang A power station, which stopped the fire, but not before many thousand dollars worth of damage had been done to reels of insulated wire in the yard.

We had a standing arrangement at the time with the Latrobe Valley Aero Club to use one of their planes for our air observer at wildfires. At the time, a lecturer at the Latrobe campus of Monash university (Ray Hodges) was experimenting with running his plane on standard vehicle petrol, and he wanted to run the plane for long hours while still within gliding distance of the airfield. I came to a financial arrangement with him to experiment flying a fixed circuit over the Latrobe Valley with one of our radios in the plane, to see if we could replace three of our fire towers with an aircraft. After Ray finished his trials, we had decided that the replacement of the three towers with an aircraft was feasible, and John Willis, the manager of the Aero Club, was keen to participate. We came to an arrangement that the Club would agree to supply an aircraft with a pilot and an observer on board, to fly the fixed circuit, whenever we wanted and for as long as we wanted. They would charge us club rates for the planes alone, and their members would get free flying hours in return. The Club would also get much greater utilization of their planes, which would keep their costs down. The cost to the Company was about the same as manning the three towers, and we no longer had to maintain the towers. The planes were fitted with a Company radio, and with a GPS when they became available. On particularly turbulent days, one of the Club’s instructors would fly the plane. The plane could be diverted to a fire for a preliminary report but would revert to its patrol as soon as we could get a second plane up with one of our air observers in it to report on the going fire.

There wasn’t one day when the Club did not honour this agreement, despite some very turbulent days.

All good things have a habit of coming to an end, and unfortunately the NSCA imploded. This left us with no aerial tanker capability, and the Company felt extremely vulnerable without it. In discussion with Angus Pollock, the Gippsland manager at the time, it was agreed that I would explore the possibility of hiring our own helicopter for the fire season. Initially, we all expected to hire a Bell 212 with a belly tank, which would be extremely expensive. However, I was convinced by the owner of a Hughes 500D with a Bambi bucket to go for his machine for the following reasons:

  • It was considerably cheaper.
  • It was faster over the ground.
  • It had a good lift capacity.
  • It was much more compact than the bigger Bell, and so could get into tighter water sources than the Bell.
  • As most paddocks had a farm dam in them to water the stock, and most of our fires occurred in areas surrounded by farms, the faster turnaround of the Hughes and its ability to get in to tighter water sources would result in delivering about as much suppressant to the fire as would a Bell.

So we went for the Hughes. The machine was parked in the open behind our office and the pilot gave it a daily inspection first thing in the morning. Due to daylight saving, the pilot did not have to come in to the office until about 1000 on most days. He/she spent the day in the Fire Control room in our office, answering the radio and so was always up with the latest fire situation and weather. We kept the machine only half fueled so that its lifting capacity was maximised, and one person, Luke McDermott, had the task of towing behind his vehicle a trailer equipped with a drum of Avtur and extra foam compound. His role was to follow up the helicopter to keep it supplied with fuel and foam. We could have the machine in the air within 5 minutes of a suspicious smoke sighting, with an Incident Controller on board. This gave the Incident Controller a chance to have a good look at the fire from the air, make a selection of the best route in for the ground crews, pick a good location for the Controller to set up, brief the pilot on tactics for the helicopter and finally to help the pilot deploy the bucket when the Controller was being set down.

This system seemed to work well, although there was a definite variation in pilot performance.

Another major problem occurred.

One Total Fire Ban day, a neighbor who had been carrying out a fuel reduction burn on his property the day before had allowed the fire to continue to burn overnight. It was creeping towards our boundary in the early morning. The forecast the previous evening had been for a strong NW winds with a south westerly change the next morning.

I sent Braden Jenkin as our Incident Controller to the scene in the morning, and he started blacking out the burning edge of the neighbour’s fire that was creeping towards the fire break on the western boundary of our pine plantation. Shortly after, the CFA Volunteer Group Officer arrived, and decided to negate Braden’s good work by starting a back burn from our boundary towards our neighbour’s burn. In his defense, there was only a light breeze at the time.
The back burn had just been completed when the forecast strong NW winds appeared.

The result was that both fires combined, flared up, and spotted across our ploughed fire break into our plantation.

Braden now had the use of a D7 I had sent him. He used it in the excellent classical tactic of starting at the source and creating a break down the north eastern flank of the fire.

It was a success. The fire did not cross the line created by Braden with his first dozer. Braden was then given a second dozer, which he started working from the southern edge of the fire in a north westerly direction. Later, the aerial photo of the burnt area was used by the ANU Forestry School as an example of what to do at a wildfire.

Shortly after, the SW change arrived and after about half an hour 50 mm of rain fell. Braden’s breaks held, though the fire broke out in the area that the dozers had not yet reached. The fire was then mopped up. We lost about 110 ha of Pinus pinaster plantation.

This made me think.

How could we locally predict when the forecast strong NW wind would arrive? After all, when the Group Officer had started his back burn there was virtually no wind at all.

Shortly after that I was able to accept an invitation to a Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) fire weather forecasting course. During the course, I described the fire to the people lecturing, and they introduced me to the mechanism of Inversion Layers.

They told me that the Latrobe Valley frequently has an inversion layer formed over it overnight. This layer acts as a barrier which deflects the strong north westerlies coming over the Alps next day from our north and stops them penetrating to ground level. It is not until the temperature at ground level reaches a certain level that thermals are triggered with enough heat to punch through the inversion layer. This breaks up the inversion and allows the NW wind to reach the ground. As a warning sign, this phenomenon can be seen from the ground by the presence of lenticular cloud streets formed by the NW wind rippling off the top of the inversion layer. These cloud streets are usually oriented NE/SW.

For this reason, the Bureau sends up helium filled balloons to measure the temperature in the air at various levels until the inversion is past. With the aid of a chart of something called an Adiabatic Lapse Rate, they could predict at what ground temperature the inversion would break up and the howling NW wind would reach the ground. Unfortunately for us, they had no facility east of Melbourne to do this.

At the time I was a glider pilot and had been in a couple of gliding competitions. I had noticed a plane taking off early in the morning, and gliders had not been launched until some time later. That had puzzled me, but I now knew why. Armed with a file of adiabatic lapse rate charts and a promise to send the daily results back to the BOM, I returned to the Valley.

Much to the puzzlement of many, I went to the Aero Club and arranged for them to do a “temperature trace flight” early on the mornings I specified on the night before. The results of the flight were plotted on the BOM’s chart and were faxed immediately to the BOM. I then had our weighbridge monitor the temperature build up at ground level and tell me when the temperature reached a specified level two degrees below that I had realized, from the BOM’s charts, would result in the break up of the inversion layer. Our crews were called back to their bases at that time and spent the rest of the day checking their gear to ensure they were ready to respond to any fire emergency.

We had total cooperation from our logging contractors, who pulled all their operations out of our plantations at that time, at our request.

We were never caught napping again.

Our tankers were initially a mixture of diesel and petrol trucks, and all their water pumps were petrol. Problems of vapourisation of the petrol had occurred occasionally in very hot conditions, so over time I converted all the water pumps to the new standard CFA diesel unit. The tankers only covered about 3,000 km/year, so each year our Equipment Supervisor (John Morgan) was asked to source a good second-hand diesel 4x4 truck to be converted into a tanker. The body of the old truck was transferred to the new unit with a few modifications, and we had a replacement tanker at a fraction of the cost of a new unit. Eventually, we had a completely diesel powered fleet of tankers. Later, we split the water tanks into two sections, one containing ¾ of the water and the other ¼. The water was drawn initially from the ¾ full section, and the crew had to make a decision as to whether to switch on the ¼ section and continue at the fire or pull out to refill at that stage. A good safety check.

Our manpower was gradually reduced over the years, so I recruited a fire crew from each of our pine logging contractors and trained them in fire behaviour, equipment handling and firefighting tactics. In some ways they were better than our own crews. Their truck driver was an experienced log truck driver and many of their members were skilled at mechanical work. They were also as keen as mustard, as firefighting was something new and exciting to them. I always lit a real fire in eucalypt bush and allowed it to develop before releasing them on to it to put it out, as a final test of their skills.

Other rules I instituted were:

  • To avoid back burning except in very limited circumstances, and then only when our Incident Controller had cleared the tactic with either myself or the Gippsland Manager. We had experienced a number of poor uses of back burns over the years, and I became very cautious in their use. Several people suggested this measure, including John Morgan, who had nearly been trapped by a back burn capriciously lit behind him at a fire.
  • Due to the widespread distribution of coal dust pulled from the open cut mines by thermals and mixed in with the ground litter, all fires had to have a fire break created around them which was down to mineral earth. If this wasn’t done, relights were common at fires we had assumed to be extinguished. This was suggested initially by Angus Borland and was quickly adopted

I retired from the Company in 2000, just prior to it being sold to Hancocks. Our Mapping Officer, Malcolm Grant, calculated that, ignoring the fire Braden Jenkins had so classically controlled, the Company had lost less than one hectare on average for each year I was in charge of their fire protection.


See also: APMForests Fire Competition 1974