Australia’s fire season is generally getting longer, more intense and less predictable.
Each state’s fire season used to be three months, but these days, it is around 130 days to as much as 160 days, said Ray Cronin, managing director of Australian aerial-firefighting company Kestrel Aviation.
Cronin said the fire season over 2021 to 2022 was less severe than the fire season over 2019-2020, because Australia had above average spring rainfall. But he warned the respite will not last forever. “We have a couple of years of adjustment before we get back into normal fire activity levels.”
Forest fires in Australia, from late 2019 to early 2020, were so catastrophic, that the Australian government called a Royal Commission; an independent public enquiry, to study the impact of the fires.
The Royal Commission reported 24 to 40 million hectares were destroyed; nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced; over 3,000 homes and many other buildings were destroyed; and 33 people died.
“Smoke may have well caused other deaths,” it said, adding that “others suffered serious physical, emotional and psychological injuries”.
Based in the central Victorian town of Mangalore, near the foothills of Australia’s densely-forested highland country where many fires occur, Kestrel Aviation, which is on the frontline of fire-fighting efforts in Australia’s southern state of Victoria, operates a fleet of 12 Pratt & Whitney-powered Bell 212 and Bell 412 helicopters.
Cronin said he likes the Pratt & Whitney-powered Bell 212 and Bell 412, because the aircraft and engines are able to operate in the harshest environments. This includes flying at low-altitude through smoke and embers or flying ‘hot and high’ carrying heavy payloads of fire retardant.
The winds in Victoria can get so harsh that there are not only embers whizzing through the air but burning branches, said Cronin who describes forest fires in Australia as “fast and furious”. “Spot fires spread out from the inferno like a funnel and broaden the front, so it is important to contain the inferno by extinguishing the spot fires,” explained Cronin.
Kestrel has installed world class Conair 85-KE firefighting belly tanks on each of its Bell helicopters which can deploy around 1,500 liters of water.
“If you need to cover an area, say within a radius of 80 nautical miles, the Bell 212s and Bell 412s can be mobilized quickly into operation. The aircraft will be able to reach the location at a fast speed and begin extinguishing the fire,” he added.
Cronin said aerial fire-fighting operators need to have ‘a mix of tools in the toolbox’, particularly for different scenarios. “If the fire seems to be getting out of control, or if the fuel loads start to get heavier, the fire agencies will mobilize and engage the Pratt & Whitney-powered Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane,” he said referring to a heavy-lift helicopter with a maximum take-off weight of 21t.
Because the Bell 212s and Bell 412s fly in such harsh conditions, tough and reliable engines are definitely essential. “We use different variants of the Pratt & Whitney PT6 engine. For the 212s, some aircraft are equipped with the PT6-3, while others are powered by PT6-3B, allowing for different operational capabilities,” he said.
“We do not have a lot of high-altitude work in Australia, so the PT6-3 is suitable for open plains where it is lower and less demanding. Whereas the PT6-3B engine powered aircraft is used for aerial recovery missions and for places where temperatures could be a limiting factor. This is because the 3B has a better temperature margin,” Cronin added. As for the 412s, they use: -3BE, -3BG and the -3D variants.
Cronin said a key benefit of the PT6 is there are so many of these engines in use today. “The engines perform well, and the spare parts support is good, our maintenance personnel are also able to work comfortably across the different variants in our portfolio. Pratt and Whitney’s engines are great to work with and give us confidence because of the reliability,” he continued.
Kestrel Aviation is a leading, fully Australian-owned specialist aviation provider with over three decades of experience providing safe, effective, innovative, and professional aerial services. Started as a specialist training and charter organization in 1985, it has since built a heritage in emergency management. The family-owned business now operates in Australia a large fleet of specialist multi-role helicopters, ranging from light reconnaissance to heavy-lift and mass passenger transit capable helicopters.
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