Corn trail 11
The fire in Deua National Park.
Corn trail 25, 26
Geoff Perry Winch operator with Nicole at the staging area.
Corn trail 34
Nicole Cooper being winched into the bush at Deua National Park. The star jump shape helps to prevent any spinning that may sometimes occur during a winching operation.
Corn trail 46
A helicopter coming in to land at a pad that has been cut for it.
Corn trail 52
Tired but happy to be coming home, Nicole Cooper, with Mark Ayliffe from Bega RAFT, centre and a member of NPWS.
Corn trail 61
Heading home: Nicole Cooper.
Nicole Cooper is a member of the Merimbula Rural Fire Service but she is also trained as a member of the local RAFT (Remote Area Firefighting Team).
These are the teams that armed with food, water and a chain saw, get winched into some of the most dense and difficult country to try and contain fires that have typically got out of control in national parks.
The work is potentially dangerous and requires close teamwork between the firefighters, the winchmen, helicopter pilots and control centres. RAFT members undergo regular fitness tests and as a minimum have to be able to walk 4.8km with a 21kg backpack within 45 minutes.
On Tuesday, October 22 a fire started in the Deua National Park following a lightning strike during a dry storm.
When the report first came through about 2.2ha were alight but the fire which became known as the Corn Trail fire, grew to a massive 133ha, 18km north-west of Nelligen.
Ms Cooper got the call on Thursday afternoon, October 24 asking her to be at Narooma that night and ready to head out the next day.
Ms Cooper said: “We were up at 6am and on the road heading out to the Eurobodalla fire control centre.”
At a briefing on Friday morning the teams were told about weather conditions, fire behaviour and how the fire had acted overnight. There were also briefings about the safety issues and resources available.
RAFT members were needed because of the dense bushland all around the fire. There was no way to get any appliances in to the fire ground and it was impossible to get trucks anywhere near the area which was burning. This meant that the teams would have to be dropped into an area on a winch, taking with them their food and water for the day, radios, fire rakes and chain saws.
Ms Cooper headed out to Cabbage Tree Creek, a staging area, where five helicopters were being used to transport firefighters out to the field. They were also being used to carry out water bombing, or water and foam bombing and put in retardant lines.
As well as the helicopters there were also fixed wing aircraft in use.
Ms Cooper said: “You put on a safety harness which is attached to a boom, you slide out of the helicopter and are winched off the side and then lowered down. A group of three of us were dropped into one area but we met up with others.
“The winches I did were winching into the most densely bushed area I have ever been in. We were trying to work out where to land (the person on the end of the winch). The chopper pilots are absolutely amazing,” she said.
The winching starts at about 150ft up and Ms Cooper said that the pilots manage to land everyone very softly onto the ground.
“When we winch in we take food and water, rake hoes and chain saws. We try to starve the fire of fuel by cutting hand lines of a couple of metres width,” she said.
The work is tough as dense bushland has to be cut and cleared and then raked to one side to ensure a fire break around the existing fire.
Firefighters are working next to the fire either at the sides or behind and in constant radio contact.
“Safety procedures have to be followed carefully to manage what could be a risky situation when leaving the fire ground,” Ms Cooper said.
Once in a dense area, the last job is to cut a helicopter pad so that they can be choppered out rather than winched out.
“It always has to be on the top of hill for helicopter access and it’s at the end of the day when you are tired and not so alert as you should be. Falling trees and limbs are always a danger in these conditions as you’re often going through black burnt country with trees that have been compromised by fire and rotor wash,” Ms Cooper said..
There were three days of active firefighting but on the Friday it was deemed to be too dangerous to send the RAFT members back into the national park.
Ms Cooper said: “On the Friday we still had to be there at the staging area, ready to go but slept in paddock, oblivious to the helicopters buzzing overhead.”
She said: “It was the hardest terrain I have ever had work in as RAFT. My number one impression was the feeling of team effort; the RFS, chopper pilots and NPWS working together and all coming out at all hours for hot refuelling and standing by all the time. It wasn’t just volunteers but also the guys working at the fire control centres who organise the logistics, backup and food.”
Ms Cooper said that she is likely to go back on Friday for another stint. While the fire is currently classed as being controlled, there’s probably weeks of firefighting work as the thick canopy of the bushland prevented much of the fire retardant from getting through.