The aerial orchestra of water-bombing efforts

The Erickson air crane Gypsy Lady at Merimbula Airport and (inset) air operations manager Tamsyne Harlen.
The Erickson air crane Gypsy Lady at Merimbula Airport and (inset) air operations manager Tamsyne Harlen.

Tamsyne Harlen knows how to take control of the skies.

It's part of the job that many describe as "choreographer of the skies", coordinating the myriad water-bombing aircraft that have helped firefighting efforts across the Bega Valley in recent weeks as an RFS Air Operations Manager.

Ms Harlen said she already had a background in aviation in the agricultural industry for 20 years before joining the NSW RFS as a volunteer in 2009.

"They discovered my background and encouraged me to pursue the aviation side of firefighting," Ms Harlen said.

Originally from the remote town of Wee Waa in northern NSW, Ms Harlen has been based in Bega for the past two years and gained her ticket as an air operations manager in 2019.

"I have been in the aviation side of the NSW RFS for 10 years and I started as a volunteer firefighter being trained as an aviation radio operator, then an airbase operator before becoming an airbase manager. I was encouraged to become an aircraft officer and then it was a natural thing to finally complete my training and become an air operations manager which I gained last year, just before we had this big fire season," she said.

She also a licensed general aviation pilot, but said she likes to keep those two worlds separate, taking the 'ground stream' of the Rural Fire Service's aerial roles.

With the Border, Werri Berri and Badja Forest Fires to contend with in the Bega Valley alone, Ms Harlen has been charged with coordinating and tasking for a fleet of water-bombing aircraft including Hueys, Blackhawks and the Erickson Skycrane stationed at Merimbula Airport.

However, Ms Harlen said she had also done plenty of coordination with the State Air Desk and Head Office for the provision of large and very large air tankers to protect areas like Burragate.

DC-10 jet aircraft and C-130 Hercules both carry chemical retardant payloads and accuracy is key in their deployment.

"If we want these big aircraft to assist, we have to write strategies that are sound and put the lines on the map that we want to paint pink," Ms Harlen said.

Despite the sometimes enormous volume of water the aircraft can drop, ground crews are still the pivotal role, Ms Harlen said.

"We never put fires out with just aircraft. We only ever say that they are a tool of operations and we complement the ground crews," she said.

"At best, most aerial bombing by aircraft will help cool and calm a fire." She said the retardant lines can help contain a fire like near Burragate, but ground crews were still key to mop up.

The Aircraft 

Merimbula has played host to a number of aircraft including Hueys, Blackhawks and the Erickson sky crane, but Ms Harlen said there had also been two Airtractor Fireboss aeroplanes working on the fires burning in the Bega Valley.

The Blackhawks actually have a bucket which takes 3500 litres of water - which is comparable to the biggest fire-fighting trucks on the ground known as Category 1 tankers.

Their buckets have the ability to fill in very shallow water, like about 10cm of water and the bucket has a door in it which can allow the full load out or split it.

"The Blackhawks are proving to be great machines, with capacity and speed," Ms Harlen said.

Nearly tripling that capacity is the Erickson sky crane, popularly dubbed Elvis after the original fire-fighting variant, the specialty helicopter can haul almost 10,000 litres.

Ms Harlen said it is stored in a special under-belly tank, while the chopper is also equipped with two snorkels for either fresh or salt water meaning it can fill up via dams, or the ocean.

She said one memorable story was the effort to ensure fuel supplies made it to Merimbula to continue the water-bombing efforts.

The skycrane uses about 4000 litres for two hours of flight and the fuel tanker parked alongside stocks enough for about one day of fire-fighting efforts.

Ms Harlen said the fuel company send out trucks to keep the fuel rig topped up every time it flies.

"When the Shoalhaven had fires closing the Princes Hwy further north, we had to get the truck escorted through and the Police assisted with this, using Highway Patrol cars.

As the truck was coming through the town of Milton, with a police car at the front and rear, people in the town, walking on the side of the road stopped to clap and cheer it as it went through. As the truck has the company logo on its side of "Aerorefuellers" I guess they all knew what role it was playing and why the Police were escorting it! I do love the support of the public for our efforts."

The airport has also played host to a couple of UH-1H Hueys.

"The Super Huey which is currently at Merimbula has a belly tank as well, and carries about 2500 litres of water. The Huey which ended up in the dam would have been carrying about the same in a bucket," Ms Harlen said.

Airtractor Fireboss airplanes are very versatile. "They are great machines as well for the coastal areas as they can pick up from dams and rivers. They also have the capacity to put out either retardant or suppressants and we are mostly using Gel with the 2 we have here. As we do rely a little on volunteers to help load aircraft, the float aeroplanes help us out here as they don't need to be loaded on the ground."

Sourcing water 

"The pilots are pretty good at choosing the appropriate place to source water," Ms Harlen says.

The aircraft have a bit of free reign where to fill up, with the priority being safety, but also proximity to the firefront to maximise operational time in the air.

"The helicopters with tanks can sometimes not use salt water at all but our Aircrane can."

The helicopters with buckets can use any water source and if they have the powerfill buckets they can fill up from water as shallow as 10cm.

The choppers can often pull up quickly to a dam on a property, but crews do keep check of where they're sourcing from.

"We have been recording the amount of water we take from peoples dams and take a waypoint to know where we have taken water from," Ms Harlen said.

"Our greatest hazards in dams are usually fences, where farmers have run a fence through and it just disappears into the water! Powerlines are our next greatest hazard."

"Sometimes, property owners let us know if they want us there or not. Typically a frantic waving of arms tells pilots not to go there! More often than not, people are mostly happy for us to use their water."

Ms Harlen said crews were always mindful of where they were drawing from and tried to keep from overloading at any one site.

"This past fire season, we have had farmers ask us to not use dams too much as what has been happening is that the muddy edges get exposed and can trap animals coming in to drink. It is something that we are aware of and try to avoid happening."

Water-bombing tasking in the air 

Tasking for water-bombing aircraft can be a combination of information from the ground, but also what crews in the air are seeing.

"As Air Ops, I am in the operations room of the Fire Control Centre and am listening to the incoming intel off the fire ground, This helps me to decide where I need to send the aircraft," Ms Harlen said.

"If a firefighter on the ground, usually a Captain or a Group Officer is asking for aircraft, I will get the necessary grid references and send the aircraft there and they can direct them from the ground onto the targets they have."

"On these big campaign fires as we are currently experiencing, I use the air attack supervisor to also help direct where we put the aircraft.

"They are basically my 'aerial eyes' as I am often in a windowless office only looking at maps!"

Ms Harlen said the air attack supervisors can be hugely important as they ensure the aircraft don't encroach on each other, especially when they're working on the same fire front.

"If we have a few aircraft over the same area of a fire, the Air Attack Supervisor pretty much co-ordinates that, kind of like an air traffic controller and firefighter all in one. We have strict rules on aircraft separation over fires and the Air Attack Supervisor helps to keep those in place. Safety is always our first priority."

There is an even bigger workflow to get the heavy jet aircraft overhead.

"When it comes to bringing in the big guns - the Large Air Tankers and the Very Large Air Tankers - like we did recently out near Burragate, that is definitely a co-ordinated effort from myself, the Incident Controller, Head Office and State Air Desk along with the crews on the ground and in the air. If we want these big aircraft to assist, we have to write strategies that are sound and put the lines on the map that we want to paint pink!

"With such a big resource that costs a great deal of money, we must be sure about how we plan for and direct these aircraft. Getting a LAT or VLAT does take time but we are constantly working behind the scenes to ensure it happens as fast as possible. So, while the images look cool of the pink retardant coming out of the big planes, you can now imagine the work that went on to get to that point!"

This story The aerial orchestra of water-bombing efforts first appeared on Bega District News.