Navy at the firefront

Leading Seaman Aircrewman Benjamin Nixon, left, Petty Officer Aircrewman Damien Wallace, centre, and Rural Fire Service volunteer Jeff Hodder prepare to leave Royal Australian Air Force Base Williamtown, Newcastle. Photo: Able Seaman Leo Baumgartner

By Lieutenant Commander Helen Ward

A Royal Australian Navy MRH-90 helicopter spent the first day of catastrophic fire conditions on search-and-rescue missions to support firefighting efforts around Kempsey, New South Wales.

After leaving Royal Australian Air Force Base Williamtown, Newcastle, the helicopter kept ahead of the firefront to ensure property owners were well prepared and equipped for the approaching firestorm.

Flying low over properties in the direct path of the fire, the aircrew made hand signals to property owners and were prepared to evacuate any who did not give the “thumbs up”.

Lieutenant Commander Michael Cairncross piloted one of the first missions, making several landings for the specialist firefighter on board to engage with community members.

“The MRH-90 has the capability to quickly move more people and equipment than firefighting helicopters can,” Lieutenant Commander Cairncross said.

“I have never witnessed the intensity of a firestorm engulfing an entire mountain in less than five minutes.

“It was an extremely dynamic environment to fly in and challenging for the entire crew.”

Jeff Hodder, an Aviation Rescue Crewman, is one of only 30 specialist volunteers with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and joined the MRH-90 crew for these first missions.

Australian Army Combat Engineer Corporal Rhys Hinton, from 2nd Combat Engineering Regiment, clears trees to form a fire break near Lower Beechmont, Queensland.

“I am a volunteer with the Cowan Brigade, on the fringe of Sydney just south of the Hawksbury River,” Mr Hodder said.

“I had been out fighting fires on the ground on Friday night and Saturday morning around Taree before my first-ever flight in a Navy helicopter.”

Both men agreed that proving the interoperability between the Royal Australian Navy and Rural Fire Service under such extreme conditions had been a great learning experience.

Defence has arrangements in place to call-out reservists if required to supplement regular Defence personnel.

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