An Australian Army helicopter on reconnaissance operations is likely to be responsible for starting the out of control Orroral Valley bushfire in the Namadgi National Park.
The MRH-90 Taipan helicopter was clearing landing zones that would be used to drop in strike teams in case of a fire. But when the aircraft landed at around 1 pm yesterday (Monday, 27 January), it’s believed the landing light created enough heat to set the grass on fire.
There were six people on board at the time of the incident, and all of them escaped uninjured after the fire began to spread quickly, Chief of Joint Operations, Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said at an ESA press conference this evening.
“We had been placing people over the last four or five days into the Namadgi forest to clear landing zones to enable emergency services to place strike teams into that area to deal with fires,” he said.
“The fire was initiated and grew rapidly. The aircraft sustained some damage on the ground, and then was able to recover back to Fairbairn.
“We are undertaking an investigation to determine the exact causes, but at this stage, we feel that the heat source from the light is the most likely cause.”
The lights are used as a safety precaution when the helicopter is flying in difficult circumstances, such as a very smoky environment. The Taipain is classified as a utility helicopter and can carry up to 12 people.
Lieutenant General Bilton says that the helicopter will continue to assist the ESA, but procedures have been changed to ensure this does not happen again.
“We will change our standard operating procedures not to utilise those lights, we acknowledge the safety aspect but it is important that we are able to continue operations in support of the emergency services,” he said.
“Since that time we have continued to use helicopters to provide fire spotting and fire mapping.”
The Australian Defence Force will continue to provide support to the ACT to help manage and contain this bushfire, Minister for Emergency Services Mick Gentleman said.
“Whilst the appliance was on the ground, this is the first time a fire has been caused by a helicopter landing light and Defence has taken action immediately to reduce the likelihood of this event reoccurring,” Minister Gentleman said.
“This includes not using certain aircraft during extreme weather conditions.
“We have had Defence at ESA since the State of Alert was declared early in January.
“Defence is continuing to work closing with the ESA to provide assets and personnel to help contain this bushfire.”
The ADF has been tasked to help construct containment lines, and have provided staff to assist in air-based operations, engineering support, evacuation support, logistic planning and air intelligence and surveillance, ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said.