'We were just trying to slow it down': Firefight from above

PETER Summerfield of McDermott Aviation was back fighting fire ants on Monday after playing a critical role beating last week's fires west of Coolum.
PETER Summerfield of McDermott Aviation was back fighting fire ants on Monday after playing a critical role beating last week's fires west of Coolum.

ARGUABLY no-one was closer to the action in last week's fire fight than the pilot in the sky unloading 1400 litres a drop from a Bell 204 helicopter onto the blaze.

McDermott Aviation's Peter Summerfield was on Monday back doing arguably more mundane work spray outer Brisbane farms as part of fire ant mitigation program.

It was very a case of out of the fire and into the ants.

Firefighting is significantly more intense than spraying the painful biters.

The Bell 204 has tanks on its underside which the pilot fills by hovering over a water source - in this case Qanda Lake - and hitting a switch.

It takes 45 seconds to fill the 1400 litre tanks after which Peter would head back to the fire zone and the direction of the Fire and Rescue Service air attack commander sitting in another helicopter above him.

The tanks have three doors which are opened simultaneously as was the case late last week, or one at a time depending on the fire.

"We were just trying to slow it down," Peter said. "I was almost hovering at times (as he released the water load).

"The goal was to keep the fire as cool as we could. If we can slow the burn they can get a backburn in on the ground.

"Sometimes you try to put the fire out. Others, like this, there is far too much fire and the goal is to cool the hot spots.

"There is a lot going on. You are trying to hit the fire, monitor instruments, record loads and talking to the air attack above us.

"You also have to look out for the crew on the ground. You don't want to dump 1400 litres of water on them.

"Like most things you get used to it. There's an enjoyment about this type of work."

Peter said smoke plumes that pushed several thousand feet into the air could rock the helicopter and one fixed-wing plane that went through one reported being buffeted around.

"You can feel the heat but when you are concentrating you don't notice till you stop.

"I took my flight suit off at the end of the day and was drenched in sweat. But it's not like fighting fires in NSW when it's 40 degrees.

Peter, 53, who lives with his partner on a property out of Kenilworth, is a former fixed-wing pilot and has flown for Sunshine Coast-based McDermott Aviation for the past decade.

The company has a fleet of firefighting helicopters which it shifts across the globe depending on contracts and fire seasons.

He said when they started work Friday they were basically in waiting mode.

"Air attack had an idea where it would go and had a plan," Peter said.

"I went up to keep it cool so it would burn out where they wanted. Then the wind took up and it was flaring with spot fires everywhere.

"It's intense and you have to keep going. It looked like some houses were going to be lost but later there was a wind shift.

"Whenever a fire is burning towards houses is intense. You have to stay calm and do your job."

Simon McDermott of McDermott gave some measure of the intensity of the role played by pilots of firefighting choppers, estimating that in the first two hours he was in the air Peter had completed 60-70 drops over the fire zone.

Topics:  bushfire coolum fire and rescue helicopter mcdermott aviation pilot

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