1 December 2021

Orroral Valley fire inquiry to likely focus on Army helicopter's operation and actions of its crew

| Albert McKnight
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Orroral Valley fire

A water-bombing helicopter heads into a flank of the Orroral Valley fire in 2020. Photo: Michael Weaver.

Draft terms of reference released for the Orroral Valley fire inquiry reveal it will likely explore the operation of an Army helicopter and the actions of its crew.

Earlier this year, ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker announced she would hold an inquiry into the fire’s cause and origin, which covered a massive amount of the Territory during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.

A light on an Army helicopter may have sparked the fire after its crew landed in the Namadgi National Park on 27 January 2020. Its crew had been tasked with investigating landing zones in the park.

After the fire began, it took 45 minutes for emergency services to be notified of the fire’s location by Army personnel.

By the time it was extinguished, the fire had burned for one month and covered 78 per cent of Namadgi National Park and 22 per cent of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.

On Tuesday (30 November), counsel assisting Kylie Nomchong SC told the ACT Coroner’s Court that the draft terms of reference for the inquiry had been prepared.

These show the inquiry will likely explore the circumstances of the operation undertaken by the Australian Defence Force, ACT Emergency Services Agency and ACT Parks and Conservation Services on 27 January 2020.

It will also look at the arrangements between those organisations regarding roles and communications and the actions of personnel aboard the Army helicopter that same day.

Coroner Walker told the court that she called the inquiry because of the apparent lack of information on the fire.

Ms Nomchong said the inquiry would not extend to the Clear Range Fire, which burned on the southern side of the ACT, but she believed that fire may form part of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

The court heard the Defence Force, represented by Michael Fordham SC, wanted to view the brief of evidence before it was made publicly available to check for potentially sensitive information.

The court also heard NSW residents from Bumbalong, south of the ACT border, wanted to have input into the inquiry.

Coroner Walker said she would reserve her decision on whether the residents could provide input and made a non-publication order on the brief of evidence until further notice.

The inquiry will return to court for a mention on 19 January 2022. The tentative starting date for the five-day hearing is 11 July 2022.

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Capital Retro10:27 am 04 Dec 21

This was in a news release shortly after the fire started:

“Army Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton said military helicopters involved in supporting firefighters would no longer use their landing lights after sparking the blaze during a reconnaissance mission.

“It’s important that we continue our operation in support of emergency services,” Bilton told reporters.”

Shortly after the fire was started, the media reported that according to defence the light was on so that the crew could better see the proposed landing site through the smoke. Photos of the fire taken by the crew were released some time later it’s fairly obvious that there was no smoke until after they started the fire.

I believe that the inquiry will find that the fire was started by a cigarette butt which was thrown by one of the crew members which, with the assistance of the wind produced by the helicopter blades, started the blaze.

So why did Defence say it was the light, and that the light had to be on so that the crew could see the landing spot clearly through the (at that time non existent) smoke. Unfortunately Defence has form at starting bush fires in other states during droughts.

Capital Retro6:16 pm 02 Dec 21

“A light on an Army helicopter may have sparked the fire”

I have never flown a helicopter but I had a light plane many years ago. I recall the instructor always telling me that the landing light was only to be turned on for night time operations.

Do any ex-services helicopter pilots know if this procedure is the same for military aircraft?

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