As we move deeper into the fire season, temperatures continue to rise and the threat of fires remains ever present, we are reminded of the role of the Country Fire Authority and its volunteers.
Whenever a fire starts to burn, brave men and women tackle it head-on to keep the community safe.
While crews battle on the ground, often there is an extra set of eyes in the sky watching to contain any fires and keep everyone involved safe.
Those watchful eyes scanning from above are often overlooked because they do not have blaring lights or loud sirens, but the role they play in fire events can be just as crucial as those on the ground.
Rob Boschen is the chief executive of AGAIR – a plane company with a focus on aerial firefighting that serves the community from the air.
His business is based out of the Stawell Airport, with the privileged position of being home to four Air Tractor 802 firefighting planes.
The planes have the capacity to store 3000 litres of water or fire retardant to dump on fires.
Mr Boschen has been involved with the company for more than 30 years, seeing plenty of action in his time.
“I have been involved in some of the major fire events like Black Saturday and the fires in the Grampians over the past 10 years. I’ve seen a fair bit,” he said.
“The company has been involved in firefighting for all that time – plus more.”
Despite being based out of Stawell, the planes have the scope to fight fires around the region in areas including Horsham, St Arnaud and even as far south as Beaufort.
They are also dispatched across the state when required.
“We have contracts with the Victorian state government where we can be moved anywhere across the state if need be,” he said. “Right now, two of our four firefighting planes are out in the east of the state helping battle the fires at Gippsland.”
Dispatching of aerial firefighting services works similarly to that of CFA brigades on the ground.
Any of the eight pilots who are rostered to fly the planes are alerted of a fire by a pager, similarly to fire brigade members.
“A pilot would then get to the plane and get it in the air. An incident controller will keep in contact with them to determine the strategy of how to use the aircraft from there,” Mr Boschen said.
“During the warmer weather, it is not unusual to get two or three calls a day.”
Not only are the pilots ready to take off whenever paged; but the process of getting the aircraft into the sky and to a fire is quicker than what might be perceived.
“From getting the page to getting airborne can take only about five or 10 minutes,” Mr Boschen said.
We complement the agencies and they complement us. It is a great benefit to the community in the general areaRob Boschen
“Then it just depends how far away the fire is. To get to Lake Fyans would take about five minutes and we can get to Horsham in about 20 minutes.
“The beauty of the aircraft is they are flexible, they get to places quickly and can land at an airport and load back up in about two or three minutes. There could be a five-minute turnaround from landing to take off again depending on the situation.”
The Stawell-based aircraft have already been put to good use in the summer months, playing crucial roles fighting out-of-control fires at Moyston, Langi Logan and Lake Fyans to name a few.
CFA District 16 operations officer Ian Morley said air support while fighting fires in the region had become an “indispensable resource”.
“They have come from humble beginnings about 15 years ago but there is now a major fleet – not just in Stawell but across the state,” he said.
“They are a major asset for firefighters, playing a key role in preventing small fires from becoming big ones and stopping big ones growing bigger.”
With wide-reaching access to the Grampians as well as towns throughout the Wimmera, Stawell Airport is an “ideal strategic base” for the firefighting fleet.
Mr Boschen said the airport was a “hidden jewel” many in the region might take for granted.
“The airport itself is a very strategic airbase for the fire agencies. There is a DELWP and CFA base here open on total fire ban days to improve the speed of response,” he said.
“We’re fortunate we are located alongside the airbase, we complement the agencies and they complement us. It is a great benefit to the community in the general area.”
Mr Morley said having the planes and resources based at Stawell provided a significant advantage to fire brigades in the region.
“It is one of the great facilities in the state. The base has expanded with great support from government agencies and the Northern Grampians shire,” he said.
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