Flashover: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, what an exciting role you have! Tell us a bit about what is involved in being an ‘aerial ignition crew’? What is your role within Parks and Wildlife WA?
My full time role within Parks and Wildlife is actually that of a fire data and GIS specialist (i.e. mapping and spatial analysis). However I’m fortunate in that this is a relatively small organisation, and I’ve been given approval to experience other roles throughout the year. During the State’s southern prescribed burning and bushfire seasons I work in the aircrew and get out on a fire truck via the district fire rosters. Being in the aircrew is great, it gives you a whole new perspective of a fire and fire behaviour that is hard to achieve from the ground.
Flashover: What is your background and where did you start before being involved in this role? Have you always been involved in firefighting or emergency services?
I never intended to work in the firefighting field, I think like a lot of people here I just kind of fell in to it. I graduated with a degree in environmental management and from there got a job with the department as a GIS specialist. After about two years I moved into the dedicated fire management branch team. Luckily my manager was on board with us getting as much field based fire experience as possible, so over the years I’ve also had a firefighting role by joining the aircrew and jumping on a firetruck at times.
Flashover: What was the training required to be part of this crew? It certainly sounds technical!
The training for the bombardier role involves a week of practical and theoretical training, covering topics such as aircraft safety protocols, as well as all of the ins and outs of the incendiary machines. Once we’ve passed our initial training we’re paired up for a few days with an experienced bombardier, and then once we’re comfortable with the process they let us work independently.
The bombardier role is a requirement to be an incendiary operations supervisor, so all of our supervisors have considerable experience in working the machines as well. The supervisor’s training also includes learning about aerial navigation and air observer techniques, and they are also required to have considerable on-ground fireline experience, preferably in a range of vegetation types.
All of the aircrew training we do is also nationally accredited. This means that we can transfer these skills to interstate deployments, if it was ever required.
Flashover: Is there regular training that you need to do for skills maintenance?
We renew our training each year, during an intensive week-long course. This ensures that we’re always ready to go and our skills are up to the required standard.
we feed potassium permanganate capsules into the machine, which are then injected with glycol. This triggers a delayed chemical reaction, resulting in heat and flames.
Flashover: What kind of technology do you carry and operate on your machine for aerial ignition runs? What is required to be loaded, checked and used for a successful mission?
We operate a Raindance incendiary machine, which is used with a SATLOC navigation system that tracks the boundary of each burn. During each run we feed potassium permanganate capsules into the machine, which are then injected with glycol. This triggers a delayed chemical reaction, resulting in heat and flames. However the reaction can be affected by external factors, such as temperature, so prior to each flight we run a few test capsules through the machine to ensure that when we start flying we’ll have a high success rate. Working with incendiaries, we also make sure we have all of the essential safety equipment on board, and enough capsules to meet the day’s requirements.
Flashover: Hazard reduction burns aside, what is required for ground crews to get you out to help? Are you on constant standby during summer?
We rotate through a roster that runs from the start of the spring burning period (approximately October), through the summer fire season, and then to the end of the autumn prescribed burning period at the end of May. There’s about thirty of us that rotate through this period, and in the busy burning seasons we usually have two crews available each day. The roster means that we can also participate in other fire rosters, such as on district fire crews and for state mapping support. A lot of us are on standby for quite a lot of that period, but in this type of field that’s to be expected!
Flashover: Lastly – when you’re not flying through smoke and dropping incendiaries, what do you enjoy doing?
I also really enjoy working as a bushfire mapper during the State’s southern bushfire season, and of course getting ground experience with fire while on the crews is always good fun. The camaraderie and adrenaline you get from working at an incident is hard to replicate. Outside of work it’s always nice to get out in nature and do some bush walking or head to the beach – that’s when we’re not on standby!
Thanks again for talking with us, Vicky! Stay safe.