Southern pilot in air fighting bushfires

NO STRANGER: Southlander Dave Latham has been drafted in to help get the Tasmanian fire under control.
NO STRANGER: Southlander Dave Latham has been drafted in to help get the Tasmanian fire under control.

Above the flames, in the cockpit of his Bell 214 helicopter, Southlander Dave Latham feels the force of the heat being generated below by the bushfires ravaging Australia's east coast.

With ambient temperatures hovering around 46 degrees Celsius, the added heat of the fire below makes the cockpit of the firefighting helicopter feel like a furnace.

But with more than 20 years' experience fighting fires from the air, it was just part of the job, the Invercargill pilot said from Tasmania yesterday as he prepared to join the fight to save the homes of residents on the Tasman Peninsula.

Record high temperatures, described as "once-in-a-generation, horrific, catastrophic weather conditions" by Tasmania's Emergency Services Minister David O'Byrne, fanned the flames of a huge bushfire in the state's south that destroyed more than 100 buildings and has left emergency services fearing for people's lives.

The Tasmanian Fire Service said the fire remained out of control, but its progress had slowed considerably in the face of calmer weather and it expected to work on control lines in coming days.

After battling blazes in northern New South Wales and the Sydney basin since October, Mr Latham has been drafted in to help get the Tasmanian fire under control, after New South Wales firefighters who were helping their Tasmanian colleagues were called back home in anticipation of the most dangerous bushfire conditions in their home state for years.

"The NSW pilots were down here helping out but they have been sent back to fight fires back home," Mr Latham said.

The bushfires ravaging Tasmania and the east coast of Australia were some of the worst he had been asked to help fight, he said.

"This is up there with the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009. There are huge tracts of land being consumed by fire because of the hot, dry and windy conditions.

"This season, every man and his dog with a helicopter is contracting to fight the bushfires," he said.

A big fire in the South Island would be considered to be 50 to 200 hectares, Mr Latham said.

He said he understood the fires in Tasmania had burned nearly 200,000 hectares, while the fire near Armidale, in New South Wales' north, covered 57,000 hectares.

Mr Latham's job is to fly into the path of the fire and dump 2850 litres of supressant from a belly tank on to the flames.

"On a big day, I can complete 100 fills. That can be between eight and 10 hours," he said.

Big days fighting fires are not new to Mr Latham. The Southlander, who owns Flying Horse Ltd, has contracted for companies across the ditch but also in New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and, in the southern winter, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Mr Latham said it was not only for bushfires that his services as a pilot were called upon.

"I have also helped during floods. Instead of fighting fires on the east coast of Australia last season, I was helping with flood relief."

Just before he filled the belly of his Bell helicopter with liquid and fired up the rotor blades across the Tasman, Mr Latham laughed when asked why he kept putting himself in the path of disasters.

"I guess I enjoy the challenge. And it's pretty satisfying when you do have a win," he said.

The Southland Times