Firefighters from RAAF Base Richmond’s No. 22 Squadron are supporting high-tempo helicopter operations to fight bushfires southwest of Sydney.

Since December 21, No. 22 Squadron has deployed a Striker Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) vehicle and firefighting crew to heli-bases in Picton and Mittagong.

Helicopters landed at these bases to refuel during missions to nearby bushfires in Nattai and Kanangra-Boyd national parks, which have destroyed about 250,000 hectares of bush since mid-December.

Sergeant Matthew Allen, Airfield Fire Controller with No. 22 Squadron, said the presence of a RAAF Striker ARFF vehicle and crew was welcomed by civilian firefighters.

“Our presence at these heli-bases frees up a New South Wales Fire and Rescue or Rural Fire Service (RFS) appliance to join in firefighting operations,” Sergeant Allen said.

“The RFS personnel on site have been impressed in the capability of the Striker fire vehicle.”

The main role for the No. 22 Squadron team is to provide fire-watch when helicopters land at the bases for hot refuel operations.

Hot exhaust from the helicopter’s engines, coupled with the downwash from the main rotors and the presence of fuel, increases the risk of fire and warrants a dedicated rescue team.

“A hot refuel is when the engines, and therefore rotors, remain running, while the helicopter is refuelled,” Sergeant Allen said.

“By not having to shut down the helicopter, they can refuel and return to the fire fight in less than half the time.

“Hot refuels are only conducted if there is imminent risk of life or property loss as a result of fire activity.”

Because the Striker ARFF vehicle is purpose-built for responding to aircraft fires, the crew can remain inside the vehicle cabin during the refuelling, allowing them to drive to each helicopter being refuelled.

“Hot refuels are only conducted if there is imminent risk of life or property loss as a result of fire activity.”

Their civilian counterparts would need to physically stand with a hose at each refuel, taking time to move between each helicopter.

The operational tempo at these heli-bases is dependent on the weather and fire conditions.

“On some days we’ve only supported a handful of hot refuels, on other hot days, crews have supported 20 or 30,” Sergeant Allen said.

“The busiest day so far was December 21, with crews supporting 52 hot refuels.”

Initially, the No. 22 Squadron firefighters worked from a heli-base established at a sportsground in Picton, which consisted of two large grass areas that served as landing grounds for the helicopters.

“An Erickson Skycrane and a Chinook operated from one area, and up to seven smaller water bombing and command and control helicopters operated from the other area,” Sergeant Allen said.

This included UH-1 Huey, UH-60 Firehawk, Jetranger and Squirrel helicopters.

From January 10, the No. 22 Squadron firefighters relocated to Mittagong Airfield in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

“At Mittagong, the facilities are more spread out due to the fact it’s an operating airstrip,” Sergeant Allen said.

“Hot refuels (at Mittagong) are conducted in an adjacent paddock with crews having to ensure the gate is closed so the cows don’t get on the airstrip.”

The presence of a RAAF Striker ARFF vehicle – complete with camouflage paint scheme – at a civilian heli-base has attracted some attention from other firefighters and the local community alike.

“The nature of helicopter operations seems to attract the public and I’ve seen many people take the opportunity to snap a photo of the Striker fire truck as we’ve driven past,” Sergeant Allen said.

“I spoke to multiple members of the public who said it was great to see Defence supporting their community.”

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